HC Deb 18 July 1997 vol 298 cc595-661

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

9.39 am
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

Ten days ago, the White Paper, "Excellence in schools" was published. I am sure that many hon. Members will welcome the opportunity to discuss in detail some of the proposals and measures contained within it.

The Prime Minister has said on more than one occasion that education is to be the No. 1 priority of his Government. Those are not just fine words; they have been matched with action and with deeds. The first Budget of the Labour Government provided an additional £2.5 billion in revenue and capital spending for our schools—a real investment in our children and in the future of our country. The first White Paper published by the Government has been that which we shall debate today.

The White Paper puts standards in schools and the need to provide high-quality education for all our children at the heart of the Government's programme. It is a White Paper which provides a vision for the future, a future in which everyone has a part to play, whether they are the Government, parents, teachers, governors, businesses, local authorities, Churches and, most important, our nation's schoolchildren. It is a White Paper about equipping our children for the challenges that lie ahead. It also honours the Government's core commitment to excellent education opportunities and high standards.

Perhaps above everything else, this is a White Paper which has the aim of replacing a culture of complacency with a commitment to success. It is for those reasons and based on those principles that the White Paper has been met with such broad acclaim and support across the spectrum of opinion in our country. The leader in The Daily Telegraph states that the Secretary of State deserves credit for treading where the Tories would not. The Independent reported: The White Paper is the most grown-up document to emerge from Government for a long time. The Sun described it as A welter of excellent proposals. The Express has described it as an ambitious and admirable White Paper. A leader in The Times stated: The Government has produced policy proposals for improving standards more coherent and all embracing than any of the initiatives introduced by the Government"— the previous one.

Perhaps more important than those reactions from the newspapers, extremely welcome as they are as an indication of the public mood and the response to the White Paper, has been the reaction from parents, the teaching profession and the wider public. They have recognised that the proposals set out in the White Paper and the principles that underpin them are the right way ahead. They are the way in which we shall raise standards for all, and we shall achieve that in partnership with everyone who shares our commitment to raising standards.

Since the publication of the White Paper last week, we have not stood still. The document has been sent to all schools and local education authorities. It has also been sent to key national and regional bodies. Summary versions are widely and freely available, including at a number of supermarkets where parents and others can easily obtain them.

Since the publication of the White Paper, we have also had the first meeting of our new standards task force on 10 July, which was chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. That body achieved some publicity when it was announced that the two vice-chairs were to be the chief education officer of Birmingham and Her Majesty's chief inspector. I must report that they both attended the first meeting of that task force and in their own ways made significant contributions to the discussion. What came out of that meeting of people with different approaches to meeting the needs of our education service was a common commitment to work together to raise standards and to improve the quality of education that our children receive.

The great strength of the task force is that it draws together representatives from the worlds of teaching, communications, local authorities, businesses, academia and the Government. The task force has already identified a number of topics that need to be pursued, for example, how best to celebrate and disseminate good practice and how to break down barriers that too often exist between schools and the wider community.

The task force has already shown that it will be a prime mover in our crusade to raise standards. In many respects, its wide-ranging and diverse membership shows the spirit of partnership that is central to the White Paper and to our overall approach towards raising standards. We believe that the White Paper is significant because, perhaps for the first time, a Government in charge of education have set out a clear, coherent agenda from early years through to secondary schools. It shows in detail how we shall improve the standards of teaching and learning in all our schools for all our pupils.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Has the hon. Gentleman noted that the top 64 schools in the league tables on key stage 2 results were Church schools, many of which are three times oversubscribed? I therefore refer him to page 67 of the document, "Foundation Schools", and wonder whether the Government will consider allowing existing county or private schools to become faith-based schools. That would give a greater opportunity to parents who want to send their children to such schools, which provide such excellent education. Those schools emphasise that good education is not just about academic standards, but about creating a whole person who wants to give to society. Are the Government therefore committed to expanding the Church-based sector?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman has said nothing with which I could disagree. I assure him that when we issue our technical consultation paper on the structure of schools, which will address the issue of community-aided and foundation schools, we shall refer specifically to not just the role of the aided sector, but whether schools that are currently maintained could express a preference about which of the three new types of school they may prefer to become. There will be a presumption that certain types of schools will become a certain type under the new structure. That will be a decision for individual schools, and no restriction will be placed upon them. They will have the freedom to choose which of the three new types of school they believe would be in the best interests of the school, the community and the parents.

The White Paper is based on six fundamental principles that are applied across the range of the proposals contained within it. First, education will be at the heart of the Government. That means a commitment by all Departments, not just the Department for Education and Employment. For example, the new Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is responsible for the national lottery, will provide some funding to train teachers in information technology. It also means working with the Department of Health on our healthy schools initiative. Perhaps above everything else, education will be at the heart of the Government because we have a Prime Minister who values and recognises the importance of education not just to individual children, but to the country.

Secondly, we want policies designed to benefit the many, not just the few. That will mean an end to divisive funding. It will mean making sure that our children can read, write and add up by the time they leave primary school. It means using resources that were targeted on elite entry to private schools in order to reduce class sizes in primary schools for the benefit of all children.

Hon. Members know that yesterday our Bill to phase out the assisted places scheme suffered an amendment in the House of Lords. That amendment would deny the resources to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds and seeks to preserve the existing position. We will overturn it when it returns to this House next week. I have not had the opportunity to discover which of their noble Lords voted for it, but I guess that the majority were hereditary peers. It is a classic example of privilege defending privilege.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Is the Minister aware that many of their lordships pressed for that amendment because they have had correspondence, as we have had, from parents who, before Labour came to power, were given pledges in writing from his colleagues that places between 11 and 13 would be honoured? It is a matter not of hereditary peerages but of keeping one's word.

Mr. Byers

On precisely that point, the hon. Lady may not have read the debate yesterday. When she has time, she will find that a clear pledge was given by my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone that any parents who had relied on the letter to which the hon. Lady referred would have the discretion offered in the Bill exercised in their favour. If, as she says, it is a question of trust, we have honoured the content of the letter. The amendment that was carried yesterday had little to do with trust, and more to do with defending privilege.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a bit rich for Opposition Members to talk about keeping their word, given their record in government? Is it not for the Government to keep their word and implement our manifesto pledge, which was clearly stated during our general election campaign, to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds by phasing out the assisted places scheme?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend is right. It is a question of keeping our word. It was given in a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), who was then Opposition spokesman, and it will be kept, as Baroness Blackstone said in yesterday's debate. We will keep our word to the electorate and honour our pledge to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Will the Minister confirm that Baroness Blackstone went even further than he has suggested by stating that there would be a presumption that children in prep schools who expected to go on to the age of 13 would be allowed to do so, subject to the quite proper individual checks that she announced to the Lords?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman is right. It has been pointed out to me that the defeat would not have been inflicted but for hereditary peerages. It is a good example of privilege defending privilege. The assisted places scheme is going to go; the sooner we get rid of hereditary peerages, the better.

The third principle that underpins the White Paper is that we have made it clear that standards matter more than structures. It is good teaching and strong leadership by heads that make the difference, not tinkering with school structures. We shall get the structures right, but they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Structures alone do not raise standards.

The fourth principle underpinning the White Paper is that intervention will be in inverse proportion to success. We shall challenge schools to succeed. We shall provide advice and guidance. We shall celebrate schools' successes, but where a school is failing, we shall not hesitate to intervene to protect the interests of the pupils. Linked to that is the fifth principle: there will be zero tolerance of underperformance. That applies to teachers, schools, local education authorities and this Government. We intend to create an education service in which every school is excellent, improving or both. Our children do not get a chance to retake their childhood or school years. For their sake, we must not tolerate failure.

The sixth principle is that the Government will work in partnership with all those committed to higher standards. We shall put an end to the divisiveness that has characterised the education world over the past 18 years. The Government will lead, but they cannot succeed alone. We want to take with us parents, teachers, governors, local education authorities, Churches and employers, all of whom have a vital part to play. We are confident that they will want to join us in our crusade to raise standards.

In the time that I have today, I cannot go through all the proposals in the White Paper. I want to highlight two important areas about which there has already been some debate and several important questions raised. The first is the relationship between schools, local education authorities and the Government, and their respective roles in raising standards. Secondly, I want to address the issue of teaching as a profession based on high status and high standards.

The relationship between schools, local education authorities and the Government is important. Several concerns about that relationship have been raised, especially by the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) during the statement to the House on 7 July. I want to take this opportunity to make clear the Government's thinking about this important area and to clarify the way in which we wish the relationship to develop.

It is important to stress that the White Paper must be seen as a whole. Individual sentences should not be taken out of context. In considering the new relationship between schools, local education authorities and the Government, there are three specific matters that I want to address: first, setting targets for Government, local education authorities and individual schools; secondly, the role of local education authorities in school improvement; and thirdly, how we see education development plans working to raise standards.

On setting targets, we propose that, by September 1998, every school will have targets set for it. Every school can and must improve. Even the best schools, with some of the best examination results, can do better. Those schools know that, and we want to set them challenging targets, as we shall challenge schools that are underperforming. The real challenge facing the Government and our country is not the 300 schools that have been identified as failing schools by Her Majesty's chief inspector and that are under special measures as a result; it is the 40 to 50 per cent. of schools that are getting by. They are coasting, doing well enough. Parents may be content, but those schools must be challenged because they could do a lot better. It is those schools, thousands of them, that will play a key part in raising national attainment standards. Every school will have targets set.

If schools are to take their targets seriously, it is vital that they take direct responsibility for them. Individual school targets should be based on national targets and the rate of progress needed to achieve them, benchmark information on the performance of similar schools at local and national level, and the most recent inspection evidence.

The main responsibility for raising standards must rest with the schools. However, if a school begins to underperform, the local education authority has a responsibility to intervene. It can do that in two ways: first, it can raise its concerns with the head teacher and the governors and offer support and assistance; secondly, it can issue a formal warning and request a plan of action, to identify how the school proposes to address those concerns.

Mr. Don Foster

Will the Minister supply a little more information about how he envisages local education authorities monitoring schools, so that they can take the action to which he referred? For example, does he envisage LEA officers visiting schools, sitting in on lessons and commenting on them? If so, do the Government intend to provide guidance to LEAs as to the procedures in that regard?

Mr. Byers

If the hon. Gentleman waits just a couple of minutes, I shall address his point about the appropriate role for local education authorities in improving schools.

I was referring to the part that LEAs can play in providing an early warning system. If there are difficulties, the local authority will have the opportunity to issue a formal warning and request a plan of action from the school concerned. If doubts continue and it becomes clear that effective action is not being taken, the LEA should be able to invite the Office for Standards in Education to conduct a further inspection. It should be able to appoint additional governors and, ultimately, it should have the power to withdraw budget delegation from the school.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the role of the LEA is to challenge schools to raise standards and to set ambitious but achievable targets. It is not one of control. Those days are gone and will not return.

Under the White Paper proposals, an effective local education authority will challenge schools to improve themselves, but it will be ready to intervene where there are problems. It will not interfere with schools that are doing well. However, the White Paper raises important questions about what the LEA's role should be in school improvement.

All schools must be monitored regularly. The White Paper proposes that there should be two external checks on the progress of individual schools. First, every school will have an Ofsted inspection at least once every six years. Clearly, that is not enough. Ofsted will continue to play an important role in identifying schools that are underperforming and making recommendations on how they can improve, but other external pressures are required between the six-yearly Ofsted inspections. The second external check will be carried out by the LEA, which will need to monitor regularly the performance of each individual school.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

It seems to me that there is a real problem with the Government's proposals. It is unlikely that schools that are monitored so closely and thoroughly by their local education authorities will want to risk trying anything new, so a normal pattern of teaching will be established, without anyone daring to step out of line because of all the heavy-handed checking. As with all systems that are directed from the centre, we shall end up with a second-rate product.

Mr. Byers

As a result of 18 years of Conservative government, all too often we have a second-rate product in respect of education.

The White Paper contains some practical proposals for addressing underperformance in our schools. Schools that are performing well and achieving good results will not suffer the interference to which the hon. Gentleman referred; only schools that are underachieving will need effective monitoring. Under this Government, there will be no hiding place for failing or underachieving schools. We make no apology for that. It is not good enough to rely on a six-yearly inspection. Schools have to be monitored sympathetically and with a light touch. That is what we expect local education authorities to do.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

We sympathise with what the Minister is trying to achieve and we welcome the fact that LEAs will play a more significant role—albeit with a light touch—in monitoring and maintaining standards in schools. However, he must be aware that, particularly in the past 10 years, LEA inspection and advisory services have been run down to an absolute minimum. Many LEAs contract out their staff to Ofsted inspection teams. As there will be no additional resources to pay for their new inspection and advisory role, how does the Minister expect LEAs to perform it adequately?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman knows that there will be additional resources from the next financial year. The Budget makes it clear that there will be additional revenue. I have no doubt that as that money goes into our school system, in the light of the proposals in the White Paper, many LEAs will recognise that they need to re-establish their advisory and inspection services.

The real problem will be finding experienced personnel. As we have given them notice in the White Paper, we hope that local authorities will begin the task of identifying people to carry out that role. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that people who were doing that work five or 10 years ago will have found other occupations and may well have left the service. We recognise that problem and see the need to tackle it. We have already started discussions with the relevant parties, to ensure that there will be personnel to provide advisory and inspection services locally, in order to deliver on the policy outlined in the White Paper.

Between six-yearly Ofsted inspections, there will be LEA monitoring. What do we expect LEAs to do? They should analyse recent test, examination and inspection results and compare them with results from similar schools; they should monitor parental and local concerns and agree annual targets with individual schools. The annual targets will be included in the education development plan of each local authority, to be submitted to the Secretary of State.

There is an issue as to what will happen if there is not agreement between a local education authority and an individual school about the target that should be set. One example was given by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) yesterday in a discussion that we had on television. A local education authority may set targets well below the national average, yet an individual school within that authority may do exceptionally well. However, we shall not tolerate the standards of an individual school being lowered as a result of the targets set by the local education authority. That is why, if there is a disagreement, there has to be a fallback position, and that will be the Secretary of State determining any disagreement between an individual school and its local education authority. We are confident that that approach will ensure that we shall be able to drive up standards for authorities, as well as challenging even schools performing well above the national average to do even better.

The local education authority will also need to check that a school's approach to improvement meets the standards set by the Government. If a school is performing successfully, the local education authority will take no further action.

In the introduction of standards and accountability into our school system, the final building block will be the education development plans that will be prepared by each local education authority. They should be operational by April 1999. Each plan will include the targets set for each school and will be submitted to the Secretary of State for approval. He will then consult Ofsted before making his decision on the education development plan.

The merits or otherwise of the education development plan depend on the LEAs functioning effectively. Where they work well—in partnership, not controlling and supporting, not interfering—LEAs can become part of the solution to the problems of our education system. However, when LEAs fail, they become part of the problem. We shall not run away from that. Without fear or favour and no matter what political control an LEA may be under, we shall intervene to stop an LEA failing the children in its locality. That is why, when it was clearly demonstrated that the east London borough of Hackney was failing its children and not delivering the quality of education that parents in Hackney and the Government expect, we invited Ofsted to carry out an inspection of Hackney. That inspection is now under way and we await its report in the autumn.

We shall not stand to one side and see the life chances of our children denied because of underperformance by an LEA, a school or an individual teacher. The reality is that if schools are to succeed in raising standards, they will need support from the local education authority acting sympathetically and from the Government. We will ensure that they receive such support.

The second area I want to touch on is teaching as a profession, which should be based on high status and high standards. High-quality classroom teaching must be at the heart of our drive to raise standards. I have no doubt that the majority of teachers do a good job, often in difficult circumstances; so the time has come to raise the status of teaching as a profession. That is why we intend to establish a general teaching council—a body which will act as a single voice for the profession. Next week, we shall publish a consultation document on the general teaching council. We have no doubt that it will make an important contribution towards the elevation of teaching as a valued profession.

It is currently a great irony that, as things stand, our best teachers are promoted and consequently spend less time in front of a class.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

Has the Minister had a chance to evaluate the contribution made to the Scottish teaching profession by the General Teaching Council in Scotland during the 22 years of its existence? If he does so and discovers—as those of us who have examined it have already discovered—that few teachers who are members of that council bother to take part in the votes for its officers or pay any attention to it, will he be surprised by the fact that the General Teaching Council in Scotland has made no contribution whatsoever towards raising standards?

Mr. Byers

If the hon. Lady waits a week, she will see that the proposals contained in our consultation document differ substantially from the model of the General Teaching Council in Scotland. We shall establish such a council as one of our steps towards elevating teaching as a valued profession.

To address the problem of classroom teachers being promoted out of the classroom, the best teachers must be rewarded for staying in the classroom and not escaping from it. That is why we intend to introduce a new career grade—advanced skills teacher. Such teachers will not only provide high-quality teaching in their own school, but play a key role in raising standards, by supporting trainee teachers and those who are newly qualified and going through their induction year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly write to the School Teachers Review Body, asking it to consider how the new advanced skills teacher grade should be introduced.

Although the majority of teachers do a good job, teaching—like any other profession—includes a number of individuals who are not up to the job. Teachers who are failing to deliver must be identified. Hon. Members will know that, earlier this week, Ofsted announced that it intended to adopt a new method of grading teachers, with the present seven-grade system being replaced by one with only three grades. We believe that that change will be helpful, although, as it will be based on limited observation, it clearly has its limitations. We believe that the lead responsibility for identifying underperforming teachers must rest with the head teacher—that is the role of a head teacher who provides leadership in a school. The prime responsibility for identifying underperforming teachers does not rest with Ofsted.

We want a fair and robust regime that recognises success in the classroom, but will also act on failure. That is the hallmark of a profession that sets a premium on standards. In the minority of cases, where teachers are accused of incompetence, they must be given a chance to improve, including training where appropriate. If improvement does not occur, they must be removed from the classroom, to avoid any further damage to their pupils' education.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

It is clear what the White Paper says, although it is not especially encouraging to read its contents. Will the Minister tell the House what time scale ideally he envisages between the identification of a failed teacher and his or her removal from the classroom?

Mr. Byers

I am coming to that point shortly. To achieve a system whereby we can remove the failing teacher from the classroom, we need speedy but fair procedures. That is clearly not the case under the present arrangements, whereby there are at least five separate stages before a teacher can be removed from the classroom. The procedure starts with an informal warning; there is then a formal oral warning, a written warning, a disciplinary hearing and then a final appeal. On average, the process takes 18 months. That is unacceptable. It is understandable that heads and governing bodies are often reluctant to embark on such a complex and time-consuming process. It simply has to change.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will be interested to learn that, earlier this week, I wrote to the national employers, asking them to establish a working group comprising themselves, the teaching unions and governors under the chairmanship of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, to identify a new procedure for dealing with incompetent teachers—one that is simple and fair and that can be completed within six months.

Mr. Willis

There is a great deal of concern among head teachers about those proposals. Heads object to the fact that the chief inspector of schools is to be required to tell them which of their teachers are failing. It is a failing head who has to be told that his teachers are failing, and the quicker we get Mr. Woodhead out of the process and empower heads to do the job, the better. There should be zero tolerance of Mr. Woodhead as there is zero tolerance in other areas.

There is a real problem in this respect. In many years' experience, I have had to deal with only a few failing teachers, and I am glad that the Minister recognises that most do a good job. However, in all those cases, the teacher went sick with a stress-related illness and ended up with an enhanced early-retirement package on health grounds. That is a source of great concern both to myself as a head teacher and to the rest of the teaching profession. Does the Minister propose to deal with that loophole as well?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman has long personal experience as head of a successful comprehensive in Leeds, and has identified a number of issues that I expect the working group to tackle. I have written to the employers about setting up that group. ACAS will chair it. I want the procedure for incompetent teachers to be completed within six months, and I have asked the group to report by 7 October.

I have also asked the group to consider a new category of gross incompetence, to which special fast-track procedures would apply. For example, it would apply if a teacher were unable to control a class of schoolchildren. Grossly incompetent teachers should be removed from the classroom and should have their case dealt with within weeks rather than months. A grossly incompetent pilot would not be allowed to remain in the cockpit of an aeroplane, and a grossly incompetent surgeon would not be allowed to remain in the operating theatre. Teachers should not be treated differently. A grossly incompetent teacher should not be allowed to remain in the classroom, adversely affecting the life chances of the children for whom he or she has responsibility.

We will, however, give support as well. Teachers need support, especially in their first year of teaching. We shall, therefore, introduce an induction year, which will provide structured support during that all-important first year of teaching. Schools will be expected to provide a planned induction programme, with guidance from the Teacher Training Agency. There is a case for confirming qualified teacher status only after the successful completion of the induction year.

The White Paper is about how we as a country and a people face the challenge of the new industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution started here and was based on investment in plant and machinery. The present revolution is about investment in human capital, learning and education. To compete in the global economy, to live in a civilised society and to develop the talents of all our children, we must unlock the potential of every young person. The White Paper provides the means to do precisely that. We are confident that, by improving standards and raising the quality of education, the proposals in the White Paper will command broad and popular support.

10.21 am
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

As the Minister of State said, the Prime Minister has often claimed that education is the Government's top priority. We applaud that; improving standards in our schools and giving children more opportunity was the top priority of the previous Conservative Government.

Ministers present the White Paper as heralding a new dawn in the country's education system. It seems a little strange, therefore, that the Government have chosen a Friday morning to debate their educational vision expressed in the White Paper. Friday is hardly the prime time in the parliamentary timetable. One would have hoped that it would merit a little more attention from the Government.

On school standards, there is much in the White Paper that we support. There is much in it that is familiar—very familiar—and which bears remarkable similarity to the policies that we have pursued and developed for the past 10 years, often in the face of bitter opposition from Labour Members, who frequently trotted through the No Lobby when those matters were before the House.

We particularly support the commitment in the White Paper to baseline assessments for all children starting in primary school and we welcome the proposals to extend Ofsted's powers of inspection to local education authorities and to reduce the period of notice that it gives schools for inspections. We welcome the extension of local management of schools. Indeed, we promised that in our manifesto. We also welcome the proposal to establish a professional headship qualification.

Of course, we back the Government's intention to make it easier to remove bad teachers. I was encouraged to hear the Minister start to spell out the details of that proposal. On first reading of the White Paper, it looks as though it could mean being stuck in arbitration for many months. I hope that he will resolve that problem.

We also welcome the commitment in the White Paper to our initiative for a core curriculum for teacher training colleges to ensure that teachers receive rigorous training. We planned for that to be introduced from this September and we are concerned that the Government would rather wait another year. That is wrong.

The fact that much of the language and content of the White Paper on educational standards can be welcomed by the Conservative Opposition is a sign of the sheer distance that the Labour party has travelled on education. The White Paper's embracing of testing, the national curriculum, the merits of Ofsted and the schools performance tables demonstrates that it is the mother of all U-turns, but we welcome it.

There are aspects of the White Paper that we do not welcome, however, and I shall spell them out. I hope that that will give the Under-Secretary the opportunity to put a little more detail behind some of the proposals when she replies. While "Excellence in schools" may contain some positive measures on improving standards, the real meat and substance would have the opposite effect.

At the heart of the White Paper and the Government's policies, lies a deep contradiction that should give cause for concern for schools, teachers, parents and hon. Members. The Government miss the point entirely when they claim that standards matter more than structures. The two go hand in hand. By making schools responsive to the wishes of parents and allowing professional teachers to chart the course of their schools, standards rise.

The Conservative Government provided the freedom for schools to develop their strengths and respond to the needs of their pupils and local communities. We placed responsibility for high standards and professional teaching firmly on individual schools. The White Paper will reverse that process. Individual schools will find that power and responsibility have been removed from them and returned once again to the hands of bureaucrats in county halls and to the Department for Education and Employment.

Although much of the detail of "Excellence in schools" remains unclear, the centralising strain running through the document is evident for all to see.

Ms Hodge

I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady and there seems to be a contradiction in what she is saying. On the one hand, she welcomed the increased local management of schools that the White Paper heralds—something which the previous Government failed to implement when they had the opportunity to do so in the Education Act 1997. Giving additional local management to schools enables them to run themselves better. It does not centralise, but decentralises.

Does the hon. Lady understand that when one decentralises, which is what the White Paper intends to do, it is incumbent on the Government and local authorities to ensure that standards are maintained by monitoring, not running, those schools?

Mrs. Browning

The hon. Lady is right. I said that we welcome local management of schools because it gives schools more decision-making powers. The contradiction is in the White Paper. It is warm on the sort of words that make people think that there will be decentralisation, but it is riddled—I am coming to examples if the hon. Lady will bide her time—with yet more powers transferred to local education authorities and the Department.

County halls will find that they have more power and more responsibilities and they will need more resources to remain at the centre with them. The Minister outlined many things that LEAs will have to do. I will refer to resources in a moment, because, with changes of this sort, there is always a cost attached.

Labour education policy has always been statist and egalitarian. Nothing has changed there in this White Paper. Labour just does a better job of disguising it. As a result of the White Paper, the structures of education in England and Wales will become centralised and more bureaucratic.

First, the White Paper proposes to increase the power and role of LEAs. The Government are trying to reassure us by saying that intervention will be in inverse proportion to success—the Minister repeated that this morning. However, the Government then set out proposals to require every school to produce an annual plan for improving its performance, which would need LEA approval. That requirement would give LEAs massive scope for intervening in schools, overruling head teachers if they took their schools in a direction that did not accord with the LEA's ethos.

Mr. Byers

I thought that I had made it clear in my speech—in any case, I want to place it on the record—that if there is a disagreement between a school and the local education authority with regard to the setting of targets, the local education authority will not impose its will. The disagreement will be registered, and it will be for the Secretary of State, in approving the plan, to determine whether the school's or the local education authority's view of the target should prevail. However, the important principle is that the targets will be challenging for the local authority and the individual school.

Mrs. Browning

That is exactly my point. If the LEA does not decide, the state will. It is statist. It is like a communist five-year plan. If the LEA does not agree, the Secretary of State will take the powers himself. That bodes ill, especially for the 1,100 grant-maintained schools. The hon. Gentleman may contradict me if he intends to make an exemption for GM schools; I am saying that the plans and targets of GM schools will require LEA clearance and approval, which would mean that those schools would return to the yoke of the local bureaucrats from whom they thought that they had escaped by voting for GM status. The White Paper is the writing on the wall for GM schools. I hope that the Minister will be honest enough to admit that.

The proposals in the White Paper would create a ridiculous situation. I told the Minister that in a television discussion yesterday, but I shall repeat my argument because I do not believe that he got the point. Of course, even in a good school there may be room for improvement, but that was not my argument. I was arguing that a school such as the London Oratory, which is a favourite school of many senior members of the Labour party, a very good school—

Mr. Byers

But could do better.

Mrs. Browning

I would not disagree with that. But what an anomaly it would be for such a school to be obliged to submit its improvement plans to a comparatively poorly performing LEA. The Oratory gets 70 per cent. A to C grade passes at GCSE. Its LEA, which will now have to approve or disapprove what it does, is the Hammersmith and Fulham local education authority, which presides over a 30 per cent. A to C grade pass rate at GCSE. It would be better if the Hammersmith and Fulham LEA submitted its plans to the Oratory so that standards might be improved.

LEAs will also be given a role in implementing the Government's policies to improve standards. Back in the driving seat of education, their role will be clear. It will be to help schools set and meet their targets. The Government also intend LEAs to co-ordinate and allocate nursery places, believing that the abolition of nursery vouchers means that, instinctively, LEAs are better placed to make decisions than parents are. The White Paper not only puts LEAs back in the driving state of education, but will lead to a massive increase in bureaucracy, paperwork and state plans, none of which have ever raised standards or improved efficiency.

It would be interesting to be told by the Minister how much of the education standard spending assessment for the coming financial year will be clawed back and retained in county halls so that the LEAs may perform all those tasks. He has already mentioned that the Chancellor of the Exchequer provided additional money in the Budget for education, to countrywide acclaim. Expectations are running high in every school in the land.

The Minister cannot do the loaves and little fishes act. Either the money will be required by the LEA to perform the additional tasks or it will go to the sharp end—into the classroom. Which is it to be? In what proportion will that money find its way into the classroom and how much of it will be retained by LEAs, as is their wont, to provide services from the centre?

The Government's latest buzz word, again mentioned by the Minister this morning, is "partnership". It crops up frequently in the White Paper. Reference is made to "a partnership for change", to "work in partnership" and to a partnership between Government and the education service", to effective partnerships at local level", to partnership with local schools and to "school-parent partnerships". We have even been told that good discipline also depends on partnership". When the Government talk about partnership, they mean more paper, another consultation exercise, more bureaucracy and the return of state planning. For anyone working in the education service, the Government's "partnership for change" will mean a great deal more time and effort, churning out paper and mastering the detail of the latest guidelines to be issued by the Department for Education and Employment, to meet the endless stream of plans that the Government have in store for the education service.

I have already mentioned that every school will need to introduce its own plan. Every LEA will need an education development plan. Schools that want to diversify and become specialist sports or language schools, for instance, will have to produce a three-year plan. Nursery education will be subject to early years development plans—parents could not possibly be trusted—and the Department will instruct LEAs to come up with action plans to cut class sizes.

The White Paper is a bureaucrats' dream. They will love it at county hall—their futures are secured—but it is the nightmare of parents and schools.

Another disturbing feature of the White Paper is the power that will be given not only to LEAs, but to the Department and the Secretary of State. A few moments ago, when I said that the LEAs would claw back power, the Minister leapt to his feet and said that, oh no, if there were a dispute the Secretary of State would decide—as though we should take comfort from that.

Power in the education service will be massively centralised. Locally, the LEAs will start to take control and, nationally, the Department for Education and Employment will start to do so. Two bodies have been—

Mr. Willis

I cannot control myself any longer. I presume that the hon. Lady worked in a different Department in the Conservatives' years in office, because I seem to recall that the previous Government produced at least one major Act of Parliament on education every year and that they took it upon themselves to centralise more powers than any Government in the history of education since 1870. How does she reconcile that with the comments that she is now making?

Mrs. Browning

Very easily, because we were the party that allowed more schools to have control, and which gave governing bodies and head teachers more control. We set up grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges. All those measures were opposed by the Opposition.

Mr. Willis

The Conservatives did that by diktat.

Mrs. Browning

No, not by diktat; by Divisions of the House, in which Labour Members and many of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues in the Liberal Democrat party trotted through the No Lobby. Now, suddenly, they tell us that they believed in those measures all the time.

I wish to discuss the two bodies that have been established since the general election, which will have national control of what goes on in our schools. On the face of it, the standards task force will meet and, drawing on a range of expertise, give advice to Ministers, but if it is to be instrumental in raising standards, it will need to overcome a great difficulty. It is obvious from the detail of the White Paper that it will have difficulty in balancing the need for raising standards and the drive for equality, which will act as a brake on raising standards.

Paragraph 12 on page 11 says: The demands for equality and increased opportunity in the 1950s and 1960s led to the introduction of comprehensive schools. All-in secondary schooling rightly became the normal pattern, but the search for equality of opportunity in some cases became a tendency to uniformity. The idea that all children had the same rights to develop their abilities led too easily to the doctrine that all had the same ability. It is hardly surprising that the Government have ended up with uniformity, when their objective was equality. We shall watch closely to see how much diversity will emerge, and what they will do to ensure that children have the same rights to develop their abilities. Developing rights and equality is not quite the same as raising standards.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Browning

The hon. Lady fails to realise that although equality sounds like a good, fair word—she is nodding—it has been demonstrated over the years that when equality becomes the pervasive requirement, as it clearly is for the Government, that entails looking beyond the individual child's ability. All too often, the result is a loss of opportunity for the individual child. When the individual child loses opportunity, a brake is put on standards, because those children who are able to go forward, as many are, fail to do so.

The hon. Lady is nodding. Let me give her an example from the White Paper. The Government say that they want to promote specialist schools. Whatever subject—sport, music, ballet, languages—such a school specialises in, one would imagine that in order to raise standards in that discipline, there would need to be some criteria at the point at which the child enters the school, in order for the pursuit of excellence to be realised when the child leaves the school.

Although the Government say that that is what they want, the White Paper states that, on entering a school, a child can be interviewed only on religious grounds. Suppose a specialist school for the arts—ballet and music, perhaps—were set up. Are we to believe—I am willing to be corrected by the Minister, if he has further information—the admission of children to such a school will be focused on egalitarian objectives? In other words, any child who wants to be a ballerina or tennis star can come to a specialist school, but those children cannot be interviewed at the age of 11 except to find out what their religion is.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)

That is silly.

Mrs. Browning

No, it is not silly. Let us hear what the admissions criteria will be for specialist schools. That is what it comes down to.

The White Paper is good on soft language, but there is a paucity of detail in it. The Government have the opportunity to spell out the detail to the House this morning. They have written the White Paper and published it; now let us have some detail.

Ms Hodge

I am genuinely shocked by what the hon. Lady has just said, and by her understanding of equality. I do not see anywhere in the White Paper or in what Ministers have said anything that suggests that equality means that every child will achieve the same. What we want, and what the Government are determined to achieve, is equality of opportunity, which the previous Government failed to achieved. That has left us with one of the worst educational records as a nation, especially among our OECD comparatives.

Mrs. Browning

With the indulgence of the House, I shall run the hon. Lady through my concern about admissions policy and the concept of equality to which the Government are determined to adhere.

The Government say in the White Paper that they will establish specialist schools in disciplines such as sport, ballet and languages, yet, in order to achieve excellence and opportunity for young people, they propose to curtail the opportunity for the schools to interview children as to the appropriateness of their admission into such a school. The White Paper states that children can be interviewed for admission only to discuss their religious affiliation. How will the Government raise standards in specialist schools if there are to be no admissions criteria?

Hon. Members are nodding behind the Minister for School Standards. I hope that he will clarify the matter before the debate is over. If there is to be no admissions policy to identify the potential tennis stars and prima ballerinas of the next generation, how will it be possible to raise standards, and how can specialist schools be successful? I hope that one of the Ministers will explain when winding up the debate.

We hear at national level about the standards and effectiveness unit. That has a huge remit to intervene throughout the education service. It is accountable to the Secretary of State. In the education service, it will develop an omnipresence, given that it will lead the "drive for school improvement", direct the implementation of the literacy and numeracy strategies", and ensure that the Government's policy of zero tolerance of underperformance is applied to schools". It will also implement and run the proposed 25 education action zones.

The main problem with the centralised structure that the Government want to create will be its power and influence over what goes on in our schools. It will give educationalists and the followers of the latest theories and fads—as though we have not had enough of them—the opportunity to dream up their ideas in academic ivory towers. They will have the full support of the Department behind them.

It has been demonstrated that the White Paper is strong on warm words and overfills its quota of rhetoric. It is somewhat vague, however, and we are all anxious to hear the missing detail. I hope that Ministers will give us more detail this morning. To use the old cliché, the devil is in the detail, and the White Paper is positively satanic, given the number of devils lurking in the pages.

The White Paper dodges the fate of grammar schools; we want to hear what that is to be. It skirts over the Government's plans for grant-maintained schools. It reiterates the Government's pledge to maximum class sizes of 30 for five, six and seven-year-olds.

As the Minister said, the presumption is that the money from the soon-to-be-abolished assisted places scheme will be enough to pay for that pledge, but there is a fundamental dishonesty in that. As we have discussed in previous debates, the money from assisted places will not be enough to reduce class sizes. We have been saying that for a long time, and we have recently been joined by the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office.

The Government should come clean and say whether they still believe that they will be able to deliver that commitment with assisted places money. If there is to be additional money from elsewhere, or if it is a matter not of funding, but of filling up the empty places in other schools, they should tell us. It is important that the point is clarified.

Mr. Byers

I am content to give that clarification. It is worth reminding hon. Members that the class size issue in Scotland is quite different from that in England and Wales. In Scotland, it is a conditions of service issue for individual teachers and is dealt with in that way. I can confirm our commitment to reducing class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds and confirm that the money will be available as a result of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme.

A total of £100 million will have accrued by the turn of the century. Thereafter, there will be annual savings in excess of £100 million a year. The two independent surveys examining the costs of abolition of the assisted places scheme and reducing class sizes both come up with an annual figure of £65 million in terms of costs, so there is ample finance to honour our class size pledge. We will reduce class sizes for every five, six and seven-year-old.

Mrs. Browning

I am grateful to the Minister for stating that he still believes that he is on course to deliver that promise. I shall write to him for further clarification, unless he wishes to reply this morning. Many hon. Members represent large rural constituencies. It is common in many rural primary schools for teachers to teach across an age range, especially in the lower ages. What will happen to a reception class of 40 five and six-year-olds in a village school? If that class is to be reduced to 10 pupils, does it mean that people will not be able to access their local primary school in future, and may face the difficulty of bussing their children to other schools some distance away that older siblings may attend? Is the Minister suggesting that those primary schools will somehow get additional classrooms and additional teachers so that the original classes may be split and the numbers reduced? Those are the sorts of questions that people in rural areas are asking.

Even if the Government intend to provide an extra class and an extra teacher in such circumstances, I know that many village primary schools—which are old Victorian schools situated on very small campuses—could not accommodate an additional classroom if they wanted to. Will the Minister confirm his intentions? Will there be extra classrooms and teachers or will parents have to send their children away from their villages to schools elsewhere?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Lady has moved from the funding issue—where there is no problem—to wider issues of admissions policies and school organisation. She has touched on several practical questions that I have raised within the Department.

As part of the White Paper consultation, we shall publish a technical consultation paper—probably some time in August—that will examine the details of admissions policies and standard numbers for schools. In that consultation paper, we shall address specifically the concerns that the hon. Lady has raised today.

We are already discussing those matters with shire counties, particularly in the context of relatively small rural primary schools. I am very conscious of the issues involved. Small rural primary schools play a vital role in the wider community. The Department is considering carefully how we can assist those small primary schools not just to remain in existence, but to flourish. We are confident that our class size pledge will assist them in that endeavour. The details will be released if not today, certainly within the month.

Mrs. Browning

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will ensure that his officials send me a copy of that document. As shadow spokesperson and as a representative of a rural community, I shall wish to participate in the consultation exercise.

We do not have the details of many proposals in the Government's White Paper. As with the previous matter, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will ensure that full details are provided in good time. As I have said, the devil is in the detail.

The Opposition welcome parts of the White Paper, but many questions remain unanswered. For example, I do not believe that there is no cost attached to the White Paper. However, the document does not mention how the costings for its proposals will be accommodated. Will there be additional new money? Will it come from the additional funding announced by the Chancellor or will LEAs have to find it from existing resources?

As to the literacy and numeracy strategy, the White Paper mentions that consultants must be in place by April next year, and that LEAs will be charged with finding the resources needed to put those consultants in place. That funding must come from this year's budget. We want to know how the Minister has costed the proposals and from which budgets the funding will come. How much do the Government estimate spending on training in order to prepare primary school teachers for the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategy? How much do the Government envisage spending on the standards and effectiveness unit? How many extra staff must the Department employ in order to accommodate the unit's workload?

Have the Government considered the likely cost implications for LEAs of preparing education development plans, monitoring schools and scrutinising schools' annual plans? Will that not fuel LEA demands for more cash from central Government? How much will it cost to set up and manage an education action zone? The Government propose establishing specialist status schools in those zones. We must know the cost implications of that measure. Who will finance the general teaching council?

The White Paper refers also to independent schools offering children extensive facilities in sport, music and other arts. I am sure that the Minister is aware of newspaper comments yesterday regarding the likely role of the independent sector. It was suggested that if independent schools did not co-operate, their charitable status could be affected. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head: I seek his assurances on that point. Although I do not object to an independent school assisting with provision, I think that the hon. Gentleman should seek legal advice about penalties regarding that school's charitable status. I am not a lawyer, but I imagine that he may be on rather uncertain legal ground. Will he clarify his plans in that regard?

The Government must iron out many details and answer many questions. We believe that the general thrust of the White Paper is wrong in principle, as it will take powers from teachers, governing bodies and parents and give them to LEAs and the centre. The White Paper talks about improving standards and suggests that that may be achieved by central planning and bureaucratic diktat, but it cannot and will not.

10.56 am
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) with a mixture of incredulity and admiration. I was particularly incredulous about her numerous criticisms of the White Paper's centralising tendencies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) pointed out, the previous Government had a penchant for centralisation. However, my hon. Friend did not refer to the Education Reform Act 1988, which contained no fewer than 500 additional powers for the Secretary of State. If ever there were centralising tendencies, they were demonstrated by the previous Government. I do not believe that such tendencies are displayed in this White Paper.

I was also incredulous that although the hon. Lady attended the Convention of Local Education Authorities conference yesterday and listened to my speech, she was not visible to me. I share some of her concerns about the White Paper, but I adopt a different attitude to the paper overall. I am concerned about the devil in the detail—as the hon. Lady put it—but the Liberal Democrats support the broad thrust of the paper and I shall raise my concerns in that context. I got the impression from the hon. Lady's speech that she does not share my attitude.

I must admit also to a degree of admiration for the hon. Lady. She came up with one or two of the best one-liners that we have heard for some time during an education debate in this place. I share her view that the education budget announced by the Chancellor—which the education spokesmen have tried to defend—is an attempted loaves and fishes act which will not work. The hon. Lady referred also to the satanic nature of the White Paper. I commend her on her one-liners, if not on the broad thrust of her opposition to the White Paper.

Broadly speaking, my party welcomes the White Paper. We welcome particularly its frequent references to re-establishing partnership and its move away from the sterile debate about structures towards a debate about school improvements and children's needs. Many White Paper proposals enjoy our full support—for example, from the establishment of the general teaching council to the probationary year for new teachers, from the inclusion of citizenship and parenting in the curriculum to developing work-related training in schools, from baseline assessment to changes in the school leaving date.

The Minister will accept that in areas where there is general support between us there are still a number of details to be worked out. He referred to a technical consultation paper on class size reductions. We welcome the fact that those details will be consulted on, but it would be helpful if the Minister agreed to publish a list of the intended consultations, with a timetable.

Mr. Byers

I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we shall publish a list identifying the measures in the White Paper that will be subject to their own consultation documents, and we shall provide a timetable to state when those consultation documents will be published.

Mr. Foster

I am most grateful for that assurance. I am sure that the House will receive the documents with interest when they are circulated.

I wish to raise some points about the White Paper. Perhaps the Minister or his colleagues will respond to them. If they are not able to answer all of them now, perhaps they will write to me with their responses.

I begin with early years education. The House will be well aware of my party's absolute commitment to ensuring high-quality early years education in this country. We would have gone further than the Government to ensure that it is available for three as well as four-year-olds as quickly as possible. I hope that we shall hear the Minister's views about the likely timetable for the provision of early years education for three and four-year-olds.

There is no clear statement in the White Paper about the Government's attitude to the provision of early years education through early entry into reception classes. It is my party's view that, generally, high quality is not easily provided through early entry into reception classes, which often do not deliver an appropriate curriculum. They certainly do not have the same staffing ratios, and they often do not have the facilities that we believe are necessary. I shall be grateful if the Minister will tell us the Government's view on that, and whether, in receiving various plans from local education authorities, they will ensure that the delivery mechanism is not predominantly through that route.

I should also be grateful to hear from the Minister whether the Government intend to announce the minimum space standards for early years education. Given the Labour party's opposition—when it was in opposition—to the Conservative Government's abolition of minimum space standards, the House will be interested to know whether the Government intend to re-establish at all stages minimum space standards.

The Minister has, in a number of debates over the years that I have shared with him, made clear his view that early years education has an important additional function: the early identification of children with special education needs. Yet there is no reference in the White Paper to how that might be done. The House will be interested to know whether there are plans to issue guidance to those involved in early years education.

The shadow Minister raised her concerns about class size reductions. I share her view that the money to be released from the abolition of the assisted places scheme will be insufficient to deliver the Government's promise. I am encouraged to that view still further, I fear, by the Minister's answers to some of her questions. If the Government do not even know how they are to deliver that commitment, particularly in relation to the problems in rural areas, I find it very difficult to understand how they can be so categorical in their assurances that the money will be sufficient. I am pleased to hear that the Minister is taking on board the concerns that many people have, particularly about the problems in rural areas. What will happen when the 31st child in a particular age group arrives at a local village school and the nearest alternative is 10 miles away? That is the type of question that I hope the technical paper to which the Minister referred will address.

There are further concerns in relation to the commitment to reduce class sizes that were not touched on by the shadow Minister. The commitment is to reduce the class size for five, six and seven-year-olds, but the Minister will be well aware that, in many parts of the country there will be classes that contain four and five-year-olds. The House will wish to know whether the commitment will extend to reducing the class size for mixed-age classes which contain four and five-year-olds.

The Minister has my party's full support for the desire to lever up standards. We particularly welcomed the fact that he said that standards have to be levered up not just in schools that are known to be failing but in all schools, including those that are currently doing well. There is no doubt whatever that we must at all costs avoid complacency in our education system. It is vitally important that all of us—that is, Members of Parliament, the Department, Ofsted, school governors, head teachers, teachers, members of the local community, local education authorities, their officials, their elected members, and many more—work together, in partnership, to ensure that standards are raised everywhere.

To that end, my Liberal Democrat colleagues have no fear about proposals for every stage of that process to be monitored and inspected. It is very instructive for me to look at what some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues in local government have been doing to lever up standards for people in various situations. I was interested to read recently of an inspection of Cornwall local education authority, which submitted itself to be one of the trial inspections under the proposals for inspection by Ofsted. The report said: Most of the schools visited in the review are improving their standards and quality—some from a very high base. In most of these the LEA 'contribution has been influential and sometimes it has been critical. Certainly Cornwall LEA has no fear of inspections to see what it is doing to raise standards.

I am delighted that even in very new local education authorities where Liberal Democrats have influence or control we are taking the issue of raising standards very seriously. Bournemouth borough council came into existence only from 1 April this year, but it has already set up plans for early learning centres. It plans to develop parenting skills, to set up learning centres for children already in schools, to establish an education directorate on lifelong learning, and to establish a training and support strategy for school improvements. I am sure that the Minister will welcome each and every one of those initiatives.

I also congratulate the local education authorities under Liberal Democrat influence that have been in operation for some time. Of those, I pick, for no particular reason, the London borough of Richmond on Thames. I am sure that the whole House will be delighted to know that when Richmond's chief education officer retired and the borough sought a replacement, the authority went out of its way to make clear in the advertisement how important standards were to it.

It is worth reflecting on what the advertisement said, because that picks up the Minister's point about partnership: Richmond upon Thames has a national reputation for the delivery of high quality educational services. This is the direct result of a commitment to planning and developing services by working in close partnership with headteachers, parents and governors. In this sense it is the product of a meeting of minds. As the Council's lead officer on all educational matters, you will be responsible for shaping future policy development and ensuring high standards are maintained throughout the borough. I am sure that the whole House, including the Minister, will welcome the form of words used in that advertisement.

The Government are keen to raise standards and intend to set tough targets both for LEAs and for schools. However, I have one big disappointment about the way in which the White Paper refers to targets. It appears constantly to assume the continued use of the existing SATs.

SATs are not an appropriate basis for the setting of targets; they are crude and simplistic. The debacle that has taken place over the marking of the English SATs this year illustrates the fact that they should not form the sole basis of a set of targets. I hope that we shall have assurances in due course about a detailed review of SATs. Certainly, I hope that targets will not be based on SATs alone.

As the Minister says, if we are to raise standards we need to focus on some of the key issues such as literacy and numeracy. However, I must tell him that, just as we would not plan the pedestrianisation of a city centre without first working out where the traffic is to go instead, it is difficult to tell teachers, "You must spend more time on this in the classroom," if we do not first work with them to slim down the national curriculum and find the additional space needed to deliver what we ask.

Of course, the Minister is right to say that we must examine areas of particular deprivation, areas with educational difficulties and other problems, and provide support for them. In that sense, the Government's proposals for education action zones may be an appropriate way forward. However, the assumption in the White Paper is that the zones will be set up only in inner cities. There are many rural communities with equal deprivation and equal need for such support.

Even if the Minister goes ahead with that form of support, he will still have to deal with the problems that used to exist with, for example, social priority allowances. Schools immediately outside the boundary of the designated area did not get the allowance, and felt deprived.

Even if the Government deal with that question, the House will still want assurances from the Minister that the money for education action zones will be new money, not top-sliced away from already deprived local education authorities that will not benefit from the zones.,lb/> We certainly agree with the Government, and with what is in the White Paper, about the need to involve parents. Indeed, the White Paper goes further and mentions the involvement of grandparents where possible. We also support proposals such as the establishment of family literary centres.

My party fully accepts the need to come to grips with the issue of parental responsibility, and to develop working relationships between schools and parents. We fully support the idea of working together to develop a home-school parental partnership agreement.

However, in opposition the Labour party proposed that when schools had established those agreements they would require parents to sign the contract before a child was allowed to enter the school. The White Paper is silent on that issue. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the new Government do not intend to carry that idea forward. It would add a wholly unacceptable dimension to admissions procedures—rather like asking a couple to sign a pre-nuptial agreement before they have even met.

Much is said about the raising of standards and partnership, and one of the ways in which we can ensure that that will happen is by making data freely available to all the partners. I therefore specifically ask the Minister to ensure that all the data held by Ofsted is made public, so that everyone has access to it and can use it in the development of plans. The information will, of course, help to check whether the chief inspector's sums add up, but there are also far more important reasons for wanting it to be made public.

The Minister will tell local education authorities, as he said today, that they are to play a key role to levering up standards in schools. I fully support him in his desire to reinvent and reinvigorate local education authorities, and to give them a key role in levering up standards, but, rightly, not the role of controlling schools. But that is an additional task. It is therefore vital that we ensure that LEAs, as well as schools, are given the funds that they require to do the job that they have been given.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough rightly pointed out that local education authority advisory services have been decimated, and the few remaining staff spend much of their time bidding for Ofsted inspections, with little or no time to help their local schools.

If LEAs are to do the task that the Minister has rightly set them, they, too, must be funded to do it. So I hope that we shall no longer have sterile debates about what the ratio of delegation between schools and LEAs is to be—whether it is 85:15, 90:10 or even, as the Secretary of State once suggested, 95:5.

In reviewing standard spending assessments and the local management of schools procedures, we should identify what the key roles of schools and LEAs are, and work out what they need to carry them out. Then there should be 100 per cent. funding and 100 per cent. funding, not an arbitrary split of some undefined central pot. I hope that that will be borne in mind when the Secretary of State considers the SSA and LMS proposals.

I have two or three more points to raise quickly with the Minister. I welcome the proposal in the White Paper to reduce red tape and bureaucracy. However, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, the shadow Minister, pointed out that the White Paper itself contains several measures that will add burdens to the work of individual schools and local education authorities.

I therefore hope that, in reviewing the impact of the proposals, the Minister will have particular regard to the many two and three-teacher schools with teaching heads. If the issue is not properly considered, the burden for them could be intolerable.

As for the proposals affecting teachers, the Government say that they are keen to raise standards by tackling initial teacher training. I must tell the Minister, perhaps more in sorrow than in anything else, that I am surprised that he is still not prepared to deliver what was, in effect, a pledge in all the speeches made over the past few years on that subject, in which the Labour party made clear its absolute opposition to school-centred initial teacher training. Yet now that Labour is in government it seems totally unwilling to do anything about the abolition of school-centred initial teacher training.

The Minister is, however, prepared to do a number of things that we welcome, such as the setting up of the general teaching council, which I have mentioned already. We also welcome the proposal to reward excellent teaching. The proposal to set up an advanced skills teacher will, we think, be one which we can support, but there is considerable confusion about it at present. Some people are not even certain whether the advanced skills teacher is to be a post or an award. If someone becomes an advanced skills teacher and moves to a different school, do they continue to be an advanced skills teacher? Clarification would be very helpful.

Mr. Byers

It is important as we set up the new career grade of the advanced skills teacher that we get it right. As I said in my speech, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly be writing to the School Teachers Review Body and we shall expect it to do some of the detailed work on the practicalities of establishing such a grade, which will address a number of the issues about whether the advanced skills teacher is a post or an individual. It would be premature today to close down any options. We will ask the review body to give detailed consideration, to consult interested parties and then to bring forward proposals for the Secretary of State to consider.

Mr. Foster

I am sure that the House is grateful for that explanation and we look forward to hearing further details.

There are two sections of the White Paper that my party finds particularly disappointing. The first relates to school admissions, which is the black hole in the White Paper. I understand that there is to be a further consultation paper on the issue and I hope that that will be published soon because in many ways, the question of admissions is central to many of the other parts of the White Paper. Without knowing the Government's intentions in relation to admissions procedures, it is difficult to address some of the other questions. How will admissions procedures interrelate with specialist schools and education action zones? What do the Government intend to do about the difficulties that result from the Greenwich judgment?

The White Paper is, however, slightly clearer than the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton gave it credit for. She spent a good deal of her speech going on about the admissions policy in relation to specialist schools. I do not want to take up the House's time in reading out the relevant section to her, so I recommend that she reads paragraph 33 on page 71 of the White Paper. I am surprised that the Minister did not draw her attention to that section, so I am doing it for him. Paragraph 33 answers all the hon. Lady's questions in a single sentence, so she could have left out that part of her speech relatively easily.

The worst part of the White Paper is the section on the status of schools. The Minister will be well aware of my party's clear view that the introduction of grant-maintained schools created a divisive, two-tier education system. We wanted grant-maintained schools to be brought back into the light-touch local education authorities. The Minister has not been prepared to accept that and has now established a bolthole for former GM schools—the foundation schools. Those boltholes for former GM schools will mean that they are outside the local education authorities. They will still be involved in many of the activities of the LEA, as the White Paper makes clear. If some schools are holding on to all their assets and employing their teachers directly, they will be very different from schools where the assets are held by the LEA and the staff are employed by the LEA. Strategic planning involving both types of schools as well as the aided schools will be very difficult.

Our big concern is that it is proposed in the White Paper that existing local education authority schools will be able, even under a Labour Government, to opt out of the LEA and into foundation school status. We fear that many schools will do that just to avoid what they fear may be damaging local education authority reorganisation schemes. How is that to be handled? The White Paper is silent about how the issue of strategic planning is to be resolved. Focus groups may be suggested as a way forward, but we would be unhappy with that. The Secretary of State may come forward with proposals for a planning application procedure, but that strikes us as legalistic, time consuming and undemocratic. The best people to make decisions on strategic planning are the LEAs and that is what we would much prefer to see.

I have raised those points in the spirit of support for the broad thrust and principle of the White Paper and I assure the Minister that my party will work with him and the Government generally to bring about the raising of standards in our schools which is the kernel of the White Paper. All of us should aim to get on with that as quickly as possible because our children deserve nothing less.

11.25 am
Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on a constructive and responsible contribution to the debate, which contrasted with that made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). When preparing for the debate, I was reminded of a conference I was at recently where Tim Brighouse gave a speech in which he talked about energy creators and energy consumers. We have seen from the Conservatives, in terms of their response to the White Paper, a lot of energy consumption.

Mr. Brighouse described the energy consumers as nasty little men and women who sat in the corner of the staff room saying, any time something was announced, "No, can't do that. Haven't got the resources. There must be another way. There is nothing wrong with the way we are doing it already." Such people generally dampen down any initiative in schools. The energy creators said, "Great! How can we do it? If we haven't got the resources, what can we prioritise? How can we do what we already do better to make room to go down this road?" Such people are really enthused by the new initiatives, rather than dampening them down.

We have seen from newspapers, teachers and local government associations—in fact, from everybody bar the Conservatives—a response to the White Paper that has shown real energy creation. As the hon. Member for Bath has just said, although people may not agree with all of the White Paper, they are asking how we can move on, how we can raise standards, how we can excel and how we can do the best for our children.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his statement on the White Paper, the response from the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), was instructive. It was energy consumption, and he seemed to be saying, "You can't do that. Where are the resources? Where is the money? All the best ideas are our ideas anyway." He did not welcome anything and he did not say that he would put aside partisan considerations because what happens in education and what happens to our children matter most. He looked at the matter only from a partisan angle. What we got today was the Browning Version of that. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton did things down, rather than looking at how we could move forward together on a consensual basis, as we can with this White Paper.

Mrs. Laing

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) whole-heartedly welcomed quite a lot of the proposals in the White Paper, simply because they are a version of Conservative policy, reflecting exactly the energy production that has gone on in education for the past 18 years.

Mr. McNulty

Whatever welcome the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton gave in the early stages was lost in the partisan ramblings that followed, some of which I noted down. She talked about the mother of all U-turns and about satanic influences. The comment that I liked best, because it harked back to old memories, was about statist five-year plans. Apparently my hon. Friend the Minister is the Stalin of Sanctuary buildings. That comment may please some older colleagues who look back with far greater reverence than I do to the old days.

The shame of it all is that, even at this stage, a partisan flavour is being introduced into the debate. Even the most right-wing Conservative—I am not casting aspersions on the three Conservative Members who are with us today—would agree that education matters, that education means something to all our children and that the state has a role to play. Most of us start from that and, if the devil is in the detail, perhaps the divergence of opinions is in the detail, too. If we agree with the guiding principles, that is at least a starting point on which to build a consensus. Many hon. Members do agree with those. Certainly people in the education service outside the House do. There are few siren voices in the education service when those people consider the real principles that underlie the White Paper, which has been welcomed in all quarters.

I have already had a meeting, the first of many, with some secondary and primary head teachers in Harrow, which, I happily say, as I said in my maiden speech, was for some eight of the 11 years I was on the council an extremely successful local education authority. It was run by Conservatives, with, so long as it stayed on the path that it was on, full support from the Labour group, of which I was the leader, and the Liberal Democrats.

Harrow has a vibrant LEA which works in partnership with all the key players in the education service in the borough. Because the partisan dimension was stripped out of the education service in Harrow, it was allowed to get on with the job and perform as well as it did, regularly turning in 55 per cent. plus in terms of GCSE results, always vying with Richmond, which was mentioned earlier, to be the leading London borough.

One reading of the White Paper may suggest that it does not offer much to Harrow, because Harrow is already doing all that it needs to do at the moment—it is nice, leafy suburbia and is meeting all the education needs of its children. I was extremely pleased to hear the Minister say that that is not the case. As has been said by others, and certainly by the head teachers whom I met last Monday, all schools—every school—can and should improve.

The head teachers also welcomed the guiding principles in the White Paper. I have to say, if I were reporting back honestly from the meeting, that, yes, they were a wee bit jaundiced and there were perhaps elements of cynicism, but, given where they have been for the past 18 years, I am not surprised. They are still waiting for the detail. I am sure that they will be extremely surprised to learn that, for the first time in a long while, they will have a White Paper on which there will be full and comprehensive consultation and that proper note will be taken of that consultation. They welcome the consultation process, tight though it is around either side of the summer holidays, and know that it will be demonstrably different from what has happened in the past.

All the head teachers welcomed the six underlying principles and the focus, which is there—I think that the shadow Minister is entirely wrong—on standards, partnership and excellence. Above all, they welcomed the inclusive nature of the document and its key underlying principle that all children and all schools matter.

Over the past 10 weeks or so, we have already seen that the first of those principles—that education is at the heart of Government—is not merely empty rhetoric. We have shown by our actions since the Queen's Speech that that is a real principle, which will guide the Government over the life of this Parliament, up to and beyond the recess. There is growing recognition—certainly in the education service and among parents and governors—that the Government should provide the overall framework for the education service and that head teachers, teachers, parents, LEAs and governors should work together locally to deliver that service, but it must be within a strategic and planned context, which is why the role of LEAs is so important.

One of the key difficulties that the Conservatives had over their time in government was in the notion that they could introduce numerous reforms, and the LEA, rather in the old Marxist sense, would wither away on the vine and no longer be necessary. Even they realised that that was not the logical extension of their reforms and that the LEA does, and must, have a key role.

It is easy to pooh-pooh the notion of partnership and to say that it is mentioned this many times or that many times in the document, but partnership is crucial. To date, it has been the key to the success of education in Harrow and it will continue to be so. The new partnership announced in the White Paper is the foundation on which education success and improvement throughout the country will be built.

It was instructive that, when talking in any detail about schools, I do not think that the shadow Minister ever mentioned children. I apologise up front if she did. When she talked about schools, she specifically mentioned assisted places, grant-maintained schools and grammar schools. In the wider scheme of things, those are but a pin-prick on the national education service and are rooted in privilege. Perhaps her comments would have been listened to with more respect if she had spoken about all our schools, the comprehensive nature of our education service and what it does for our children throughout the country.

What this White Paper is not about, rightly, is elitist selection for the few and mediocrity, or whatever else is left, for the many. That is important. It is not—although perhaps it has already become a cliché—a policy cliché to talk about the many and the few. The White Paper recognises, as I have said, that every single school can and must improve and that—this is not controversial in any way—no school is good enough. For some people, that might sound strange or offensive, but anyone who works in and is rooted in education will accept that straight away.

Of course, no school is good enough. One can and must get away from any notion of complacency. I certainly will in terms of that suburban version of complacency that says, "Well, 55 per cent. in Harrow is wonderful. We'll try to get 56 per cent. next year. If we get 50, no one is going to complain. It is still better than any number of other LEAs every year bar three or four." As a councillor, I have railed against that, because complacency, along with ignorance, is the last thing that our children need.

There is, therefore, room for improvement in schools in Harrow, Harrogate and Hackney and in all other LEAs. Everyone accepts that and that is at the core of the White Paper. That is why its emphasis on standards is so important. All schools and all LEAs must improve on their last best performance. I have a worry that, until now, there has been a notion that suburban mediocrity will do—hit somewhere in the 50s and it is okay and does not matter—and that, at the other end, the Darrens and Sharons cannot achieve; that is an offensive phrase heard at a recent teachers' conference. There is an acceptance that, in some LEAs, because of deprivation and socio-economic conditions, 20 per cent. is good enough. Well, it is not. It is not good enough in inner-London LEAs and 50 or 60 per cent. is not good enough in outer-London suburban schools or in the best LEAs. All can and should improve.

The White Paper—it is not mistitled—is about excellence in all schools, not excellence in some schools or in some schools that get 10 per cent. of their children through. It is not about giving children in deprived areas a few bob more and a few structures to help them out and to raise expectations; it is about excellence in all areas in terms of children's performance.

It is right, too, that the White Paper focuses on standards and not structures. The shadow Minister is right, to some extent, to say that the two go together. We cannot have one without the other. I was going to say we cannot have eggs without bacon—we can, but it is not as nice. The point is that structures and standards both matter. With the best will in the world, over the past 18 years we have had some sort of anally retentive fixation with structures and how to serve the most privileged within those structures, and standards have fallen off the agenda. That is the key. There is a relationship between standards and structures. All our children can benefit by standards going up, but we must define the structures. That is the right way around for that relationship.

Education is not about a grammar school in every town for the top 5 per cent. of our children; it is about the highest possible performance by education services for all schools. At its core, that requires a light, strategically focused touch by LEAs to support that in each area. I nearly made a Freudian slip: I almost said control that in each area, but I am talking about support.

LEAs will welcome a debate that focuses on school improvement and outlines how they will intervene, but not interfere, by working with all partners. The hon. Member for Bath was right to say that there could be an aberration. For my sins, I am a member of a European Standing Committee and I get thick piles of paperwork. Do we want a White Paper that is the size of the "Children's Encyclopaedia Britannica", all 30 volumes of it, going out to consultation? That is what would be required for all the subsequent detail.

There must be clarity about the role of LEAs, but there is a need for strategic underpinning. That is a key element, but only one element, in the overall partnership that is needed to secure our children's future. I think that those issues will be elaborated in the consultation. Although it is useful shorthand, the phrase "zero tolerance" is rather ugly and clumsy, but that is what we are about if we agree that all schools can and should improve. I should rather be more positive and say that all must excel and improve and that there must be robust intolerance of failure.

All partners have a role in a new and mutually supportive partnership. The shadow Minister is fundamentally wrong. I agree that all those partners have rights, but they also have responsibilities and they must be accountable. The White Paper goes into some detail on that. We rightly afford parents codified rights and responsibilities and they must be held accountable for those. The same applies to teachers for what they do in the classroom, to heads in the context of their management of schools and to LEAs.

None of those key partners, given the seriousness with which they view education, will worry about being held accountable for their roles. LEAs will certainly not worry about that. The work of the best LEAs shows that they would welcome the notion of an external review and some of them sought to carry out their own external reviews long before such reviews became policies.

The LEAs are publicly elected bodies charged with looking after public money. They must be accountable for education development plans and be subject to external review by the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission. The task forces, the units that are to be set up and the Government should also be accountable. We shall be accountable: if we wax lyrical and focus on and emphasise education for the next four or five years, parents will know, come 2002 or in whatever year the next election is held, whether we have delivered and will judge us on that. We shall be happy to go into that election on our record.

The White Paper is about new partnerships and new deals and it is a shame that the shadow Minister chose to adopt a partisan, knockabout party conference mode, rather than treating the subject more seriously. There are elements for concern in the document, but it is about future partnerships, with all the key players energised to play a role in an education service that matters. I am surprised that the shadow Minister did not notice that the White Paper plainly states that LEAs are not to be afforded a direct, managerial role, which would have been a return to a "Stephen the Stalinist" little plan. The document clearly states that LEAs must earn their place in the partnership. That is right, and LEAs recognise it.

There is a new optimism. It is easy to be cynical and to personalise the debate by speaking about a key personality in a senior role in education who is not necessarily elected, or to pass motions against such people at National Association of Head Teachers conferences. It is easy to be petulant and sceptical and to say that we want everything up front now and cannot wait because we have waited long enough. It is right for the Government to exhort all the key partners to join in the success that will flow from the White Paper. There is no room for smugness or complacency in the Harrows, Hackneys or the Harrogates.

The core elements for a new dawn for education are in the White Paper. We must all work together to avoid complacency and we must shun mediocrity, which in the past has often served as a measure of performance. All partners should start from the premise that they should never write off a child like Darren or Sharon.

It is not too late for Conservatives to leave their partisan mode. I know that they learn in opposition, because I saw that happening in Harrow in 1994 when they were wiped out. Only 16 of 63 were left, and for a while they wandered around looking a bit lost. Eventually, they found a role that occasionally was productive. Education is far too important for people to drop back into partisan roles. We need to work together within the framework of the White Paper to do the best for our children.

It has been said that the targets in the White Paper and those in pronouncements since 1 May are too ambitious. I have been in education for 14 years, albeit in higher education, and I can say that one can never be over-ambitious. If the aim is to excel, one tries to stretch a little bit beyond what might seem to be the easiest and simplest option. Let us grasp the "passion in action", as The Times Educational Supplement characterised it last week, that is outlined in the document and let an energised can-do teaching profession get on with the job that it knows best, which is teaching our children to excel and stretching for more. If teaching is not about stretching for more, the job is not being done.

Excellence in all our schools is not simply about ambition: it is about rights, and our children have a right to expect excellence in all schools. We must not fail them because education matters to everyone. If we go forward together—I do not mean everyone but the Conservatives—children and parents will thank us. That is the way forward and it is the foundation that is outlined in the White Paper.

11.47 am
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

The White Paper boasts that it is the Government's first and it makes a virtue of excellence and standards. If it reflects the standard of subsequent White Papers, I am severely disappointed. It raises more questions than it answers. Rather than being a policy paper, it is more of an examination paper; that is peculiar for a White Paper and leaves an air of mystery over many of the most important areas of education policy. Many of the policies that are revealed seem to be rather contradictory.

There are some extremely important issues to tackle, and I should have thought that the Government, rather than hurrying as they have done in an effort to produce a glossy publication, would feel it better to wait a while, consult more widely and think through the subject in more detail before publishing the White Paper. We could have got our teeth into a more serious, detailed and heavyweight document, which would have tackled the real problems that exist in education.

I do not want to be uncharitable towards the Government. They said that they would prioritise education, and we shall see whether that happens. I shall keep an open mind. Education needs prioritising, but the White Paper does not make it clear whether that will happen.

I do not want to throw away the entire contents of the White Paper, although I have criticisms of many parts of it. There are positive aspects, many of which are built on the work of the previous Government: the White Paper, at least in rhetoric, still supports the emphasis on standards, diversity and choice. I welcome the baseline assessment for new entrants to primary schools; the emphasis on improving standards of literacy and numeracy in 11-year-olds; the extension of local management of schools; the extension of Ofsted inspections to local education authorities; and the new emphasis on ensuring that poorer teachers are weeded out and that heads have proper qualifications.

On page 66, we read: Our priority is standards, not structures", yet further down the same page we find the ominous phrase, "a new framework". In other words, having talked about standards, the White Paper puts the emphasis on structure, reorganisation, bureaucracy, paperwork and centralisation, rather than on what really matters: what happens at the chalk face.

In detail, some of the planned reorganisation seems even more stark. We get the distinct impression that decisions on education will be given to bureaucrats rather than professionals, to councillors rather than parents and governing bodies. That will most definitely be to the detriment of education and schools.

That process will carry in its train centralisation of the kind so ably referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), in which local education authorities will have to come up with education development plans. What that will achieve remains to be seen; it will certainly involve a great deal of resources, time, effort and cost, and will be another external influence on schools that have in the past few years had the freedom to develop and improve themselves.

We read about the annual plan that schools will have to produce, but in which LEAs will clearly intervene—another sign of a return to centralisation. If the new centralisation involved in giving extra powers to LEAs is not enough, the Department, as always, ends up grasping the lion's share of decision making and intervention, with its plethora of new units and proposed abilities to intervene.

Mr. Willis

I have difficulty following the hon. Gentleman's argument. Under the previous Government's arrangements, Ofsted was to inspect schools once every six years, so, in theory, there would be five years without anyone inspecting standards in those schools. The Government propose that LEAs should play an important role, but if, as the hon. Gentleman seems to want, that did not happen, who would maintain standards? Without an overall plan, what could those standards be judged against?

Mr. Merchant

There is a massive difference between inspections as part of a system that ensures that schools themselves maintain standards and reach for the highest of their own volition, and a system that imposes organisation from without and tells schools and the professionals within them how to manage and how to teach.

As I understand the White Paper, it seeks to move a long way from the laudable objective of having proper systems of inspection towards systems of control and direction. I know that the rhetoric is about partnership, a light touch, advice and so on, but the essence of the detail looks to me as if it is going back to the days when the power lay with the LEA or the Department. That is the real danger in the White Paper.

I am anxious not to prejudge the Government and I am trying to read between the lines of what is, in fact, an extremely vague document. It leaves some important areas of education policy extremely vague. For example, the future of grant-maintained and grammar schools is dealt with in a mere paragraph. There is also much vagueness on admissions policy, problems of exclusion and other matters.

I welcome the emphasis on excellence and standards. I hope that it is not merely rhetoric. I come from an area where standards are high and there is diversity and choice. That is welcomed by the vast majority of parents.

I welcome the idea that the same excellence should be extended to other parts of the country where local education authorities have not been so successful.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

The hon. Gentleman says that he comes from an area where standards are high. Does he agree that the Conservative Government, who were in power for 18 years, created nothing but fragmentation and inequality, with a top-heavy emphasis on assisted places? While millions of pounds were being paid out, they were trying to save thousands of pounds in Labour-controlled authorities and closing schools down. Does he agree that, because of lack of investment in education, we have inherited a dreadful situation and we have to do something about it?

Mr. Merchant

I do not accept that. From my experience, high standards have been achieved in education and those standards have improved immeasurably in more than 10 years because of the previous Government's efforts. I accept, however, that those standards must continue to improve, because they are vital to our future. That is why I do not offer a blanket condemnation of the White Paper; if the Government are serious about improving standards, I welcome it.

I was merely arguing that I should like the high standards achieved in my constituency to be mirrored in other parts of the country where, for one reason or another, it has not been possible to achieve such standards. I do not believe that that will be done through rigid centralisation; it will be done by enabling the schools and the professionals to be free to do their best to produce the quality of education that best suits the children.

It is a shame that although the White Paper mentions Bromley, it does not draw attention to its high standards, but refers to the confusion surrounding its admissions policy. I accept that there are difficulties, but the White Paper misinterprets the reasons for that. It fails to mention that the principal cause of the problem in Bromley is that its schools are so popular that they attract a large number of pupils from neighbouring boroughs, where, over the years, Labour-controlled local authorities have been unable to offer education of the same quality.

According to next year's admissions, 820 out-of-borough pupils will attend Bromley schools. That is a result of the Greenwich judgment, which, as hon. Members are aware, prevents schools from exercising any preference for children from their own locality. The Greenwich judgment is at the heart of the admissions difficulties of Bromley. The Government need to consider it carefully and attempt to find a solution. I should prefer the judgment to be overruled, but that requires primary legislation. I should be interested to hear what the Government have to say about that. If they are not prepared to introduce such legislation, they will have to consider alternative solutions to the problem, which will inevitably grow year after year.

The sheer number of pupils—educational refugees—from other boroughs who attend Bromley's schools renders the White Paper's aspirations about the community nonsense. It repeatedly argues that the community should be directly involved in the provision of local education, but the community of Bromley and of my constituency, Beckenham, is losing out as a result of the Greenwich judgment, which has distorted and toppled any ability to maintain a coherent admissions system.

I should like a system that operates fairly, transparently and swiftly. It breaks my heart that I am visited every year by parents whose children still, this late in the academic year, do not have a place for next year. That problem is getting worse every year. I would far rather that we had an admissions system that delivered swift decisions much earlier in the year, and which perhaps limited the options that are currently available, than one which, year on year, is confused and changeable. Parents are left confused and uncertain. Their children are left, this late in the academic year, without a secondary school place; in the worst cases, every other child in the primary school has a place.

The Government should consider whether it is possible legally for secondary schools to use a primary school feeder system as a possible means of overcoming the confusion caused by the Greenwich judgment. In the past, I have been advised by departmental officials that unless a feeder system is already in place, its establishment might not be legal as a result of the Greenwich judgment. I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

I should like an admissions system that more or less can guarantee every child a place at the local school, in the absence of any other place, but which does not require the child to go to that local school. It should offer choice and diversity should parents and children want it. That would offer the best of both worlds—choice and diversity would be available to parents, as it is to parents in my borough, but children would also be guaranteed a place. That would prevent local children from being pushed out of the borough's schools, as they are now, by children crossing the boundary from other boroughs.

I do not want to be parochial and I am not suggesting that I would not want any children from other boroughs attending schools in Bromley. I can see that that flow offers positive advantages to everyone. I do not want to have a rigid system, but if community is to mean anything, if parents are to have a say and if we are to have a smooth-running, coherent admissions system, we need clarity. The problem involves admittedly limited areas, but, unfortunately, my constituents have been especially affected.

Sadly, education has always been a political football. I would most like from the new Government a break with the past and an attempt to forge more of an all-party consensus in education, to achieve stability in the system in the interests of standards and of the more positive things that the Government preach in their White Paper. I fear, however, that lurking behind their positive words is the dragon of state planning, of a rigid system enforced on all schools for reasons of political prejudice, correctness and ideology. I hope that they will not be, but I fear that the Government will be increasingly dragged down that road, as all Labour Governments have been in the past on education. If they fail to make a break with the past, they will find not only that their aspirations for standards, excellence and so on will fail, but that they will reap the condemnation of people of all political views among the electorate.

Parents are not interested in political ideology, correctness or theories on education; they are interested in their children getting the maximum quality of education and a choice that enables them to match the needs of their children with what education should provide. That is what the Government should aim to achieve.

12.6 pm

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

I welcome the White Paper, "Excellence in schools" and the fact that it has been prepared and presented so quickly. I associate myself with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty).

I have had some experience in this area, although I am not a teacher. I have been a school governor for more than 15 years, working with both primary and secondary schools and I have been governor of a sixth-form college. I have chaired an independent appeals committee. Drawing on those experiences, as well as on my experience as a parent, I have some contribution to make to the debate.

On the points raised by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), one problem of the past 18 years has been the hijacking by the Conservative party of the word "choice" in education. All parents want choice for their children and when they look for schools, they make those choices. In reality, there are few choices. The White Paper tries to make choice more relevant, by ensuring that standards are improved across the board. Grant-maintained schools, the few grammar schools and the assisted places scheme do not affect the majority of parents. The White Paper aims to do that.

School governors play an important role, but not much has been said about it today. It would be useful to focus on their role, because there are more than 300,000 of them. We have already spoken about partnership, and that genuinely applies to education. Opposition Members have suggested that the White Paper contains an element of statism. I do not agree. That is certainly not relevant to the work of the school governors.

School governors welcome the local management of schools and the delegation of school budgets. They like to influence the planning and management of schools. Over the years, governors have contributed a great deal to many schools, but schools also require the support of their local education authorities. We need to get the balance right. I hope that the Opposition agree. In my experience of working with Conservative representatives on school governing bodies and local education authorities, there is usually a great deal of consensus. Most school governors and members of local education committees work hard for the benefit of children in the borough. Members of LEAs often have specialist skills, and schools rely on having quick and easy access to their expertise. If we diffuse the structure of our education system, we may lose much of that expertise, which is a great advantage.

Local political parties stand on their education policies and they go to the electorate regularly. To that extent, they are accountable. There is much to be said for developing the partnership between everyone involved in education—local education authorities, schools and school governing bodies. Through partnership, accountability and placing emphasis on standards, we can make a serious attack on the inherent problems in our education system. I am sure that the bipartisan approach of many LEAs is the best way forward.

I am also concerned about the burden being placed on school governors. As a school governor, I often receive big wodges of paper. All school governors are voluntary and most of them have other jobs. They have to prepare for and attend meetings at schools and put decisions into effect. If we place additional burdens on them, they will become less effective.

The position of school governors has changed remarkably over the years. When I first became a school governor 17 or 18 years ago, the termly meetings used to consist of a report from the head teacher and a discussion of events at the school, followed by some light chat. The meetings would take about two hours. Now, we meet three or four times a term. The board of governors might be broken down into sub-committees and working parties involved in budgets, the maintenance of premises, and so on. If legislation continues to place more burdens on school governors, there is a real danger that schools will not get the support that they need. We must consider that when we develop the detailed legislative proposals that will result from the White Paper.

There are also dangers in involving school governors in the achievement of standards in schools. The White Paper specifically states that governors should demand various pieces of information from head teachers, in an attempt to drive up standards. I welcome the main thrust of the White Paper, but there is a danger that school governors will become too involved in the day-to-day management of schools. There has always been a grey area between the management of schools and the responsibilities of school governors. In my view, a code of practice should be produced and sent to all schools. Of course, it should be the subject of consultation first, but it would be helpful if the White Paper resulted in a code of practice.

I have one or two other points to raise. Since the election, I have continued to visit schools in my constituency and to seek the views of teachers generally. There is a danger that the messages that we send to schools and the language that we use will attack teacher morale. Although there is clearly a need to attack low standards where they exist, that must be done sensitively, because teachers worry about how action taken by this place, parents, and local authorities undermines their status. We must give careful consideration to that issue.

The assessment of children when they first go to school is an important move. I should like there to be much earlier screening, especially for learning difficulties such as dyslexia. The learning difficulties of many children throughout the country are not identified early enough in their school career. Local authorities and schools should become more responsible for that. Identification of such problems and the training of teachers to identify them is an important matter.

I have already mentioned the role of local education authorities. Some of the rhetoric used by Conservative Members sends out the wrong messages. Local education authorities have a firm role to play in the development of our schools, and I am sure that they will continue to play it.

I welcome the White Paper, although I have slight reservations about the consultation period. The paper went out last week and hit local education authorities and schools just as schools were breaking up for the summer holidays. For the consultation to be wide ranging, it needs input from LEA committees and school governing bodies. They will be coming back in the first week of September and will have only four weeks to consider the matter. It would be helpful if the consultation period could be extended, perhaps by a week or two, so that as many LEAs and schools as possible could participate. We are told that the White Paper has been circulated as widely as possible, but if the window of opportunity for schools to contribute and make representations is narrow, we might miss out on some valuable contributions.

12.17 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

We have heard some excellent and constructive contributions from hon. Members of all parties and I hope that I shall continue in the same vein. I have followed my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) before—as chairman of Durham University Conservative Association—and I am especially pleased to be following him today, albeit after a slightly shorter interval.

I am delighted that the White Paper states that it focuses on standards and not on structure. That is something we can all welcome, although the White Paper raises many questions and leaves the way open for many new structures to be introduced. Whether or not they are to be subject to consultation, we are told to expect a new White Paper on structures in the near future.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) referred to a sterile debate on structures and I agree that that is largely unhelpful. The people I represent are keen to move away from that debate, because we have a local education system which is tried and tested—we have grammar schools, high schools and a variety of other schools. It is a popular system, it works and it does not consign any of our children to failure.

I find it objectionable when hon. Members occasionally utter the outdated cliché that the 11-plus consigns some children to failure—it does not. If there are good high schools and good grammar schools, we can select and provide good education for all children, and that is what we do in the borough of Trafford. All too often, the experience of Labour in government—whether central or local—has been about levelling down in education, not levelling up. I devoutly hope that the White Paper is, indeed, a departure from that experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to the distance that has been travelled by Labour. If it really has been travelled, I welcome it. We can perceive another distance, however, between the utterances of Ministers and the behaviour of Labour-controlled local authorities. I certainly want that distance to be closed, too. I am reminded that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment used to preside over schools in the city of Sheffield, where no great renaissance of standards took place. Indeed, the reverse was perhaps the case. I hope that that experience has taught him something.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to grant-maintained schools. Many schools in my constituency are grant maintained—not merely the grammar schools, but the high schools. Parents voted for their status, in some cases by large majorities. Many of those schools felt a particular urgency about achieving that status when, sadly, the borough of Trafford fell under Labour control for the first time last year. We regard that as an aberration. I hope that it will not persist for too much longer.

The fact that the parents and schools felt that they had to seek sanctuary in grant-maintained status is worthy of note. I am confident that that status will protect those schools and will continue to allow an improvement in standards.

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about grant-maintained schools. Does he agree that the vast majority of parents have chosen not to go for such status? Out of 25,000 schools, only about 1,100—I think that that was the figure mentioned earlier—have gone grant maintained.

Mr. Brady

Progress has to take place by degrees. The grant-maintained schools in my constituency are great examples to all schools. The improvements that have taken place in good schools since they became grant maintained have been remarkable and a model for others.

It may not surprise hon. Members who have heard me talk on education if I turn my attention to what the Liberal Democrat spokesman referred to as the "black hole" in the White Paper—admissions policy. That is a major concern. The White Paper refers to the importance of allowing as many parents as possible to achieve their preferred choice of school. That is somewhat at variance with the Government's early attack on the assisted places scheme which limited parental choice.

There is also cause for concern in the proposed reduction in class sizes. How will it be done? I am not merely concerned about the 31st child applying to a small rural school. What will happen in popular schools that have no room to expand? Is there not a danger that the number of parents and children who have to make do with second or third choices will increase? People will be forced to send their children to the less good and less popular schools because those are the only ones with places available.

Again, I think that there may be a marked difference between what the White Paper sets out to achieve and the results of Government policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the importance of specialist schools, which is flagged up in the White Paper. How can they select, if not by interview or exam? I am concerned to read in the White Paper the phrase: There will be no going back to the 11-plus. Where does that leave those of us who still have it, where it works effectively?

The White Paper also states that the local education authorities will not institute any changes. If grammar schools are to go, it will be from the choice of local parents. That begs a large and important question for my constituents. Which parents will be consulted? On grant-maintained schools, it has been vital that the parents of children at the schools have been the ones to vote on their future. I very much hope for an assurance from the Minister that if a ballot is to be held on the future of grammar schools, it will be a ballot of the parents of children at those schools, not of a wider section of parents who may have no interest in those schools. That is a marked concern of schools in my constituency.

Although we know that the LEA may not take a decision about the future of grammar schools in my constituency, I should welcome an assurance—as would my constituents as local taxpayers—that LEAs will be prohibited from using public funds to campaign for the end of grant-maintained schools. That is an important point. I should say that my Labour local authority is pledged to rid my constituency of grammar schools in a way that the new Government say they are not, so that is another disparity between what we hear from Labour in local government and in Parliament.

I read that the Secretary of State will set out national guidelines for admissions policy. As the Secretary of State has said that he does not personally approve of grammar schools, will the national guidelines allow for the continuation of grammar schools and, if they do, under what circumstances and in what way? Will the guidelines exclude reference to grammar schools? Will guidelines be set for grant-maintained schools or—if they are created—for foundation schools? Those very important questions remain to be answered. They are certainly not answered in the White Paper.

Schools would be expected to discuss their admissions policies and their plans with the LEA. The White Paper tells us that it is hoped that agreement will be reached in the vast majority of cases. If agreement is not reached, there will be recourse to an independent adjudicator. That implies that, as in most adjudication processes, some type of agreement would be expected to be reached at the end of that. Would an agreement be forced on schools and local education authorities if they failed to reach agreement of their own volition? I should welcome a response on that point.

The White Paper rules out partial selection and says that the adjudicator will have the power to end partial selection where it already exists. Will that power extend to those schools and systems where full selection already exists? I hope that the Minister will reassure me about that.

How will the adjudicator exercise that seemingly arbitrary power? The White Paper contains the bald statement that the adjudicator will have the power to end partial selection where it already exists. Will that power by exercised by diktat? By whose authority will it be exercised, and following what consultation? Will it apply in all circumstances? If partial selection is to be ended in all schools, why leave it to the adjudicator to end it? Why not come clean and say that the Government intend to abolish the right of schools to select part of their pupil numbers?

I hold no brief for independent schools—I am an old boy of Altrincham grammar school, a school of which I am extremely proud—but I find the references in the White Paper to independent schools most interesting. I read: The educational apartheid created by the public/private divide diminishes the whole education system. Again, I refer to examples from my constituency experience. In the borough of Trafford, the Labour local authority has just voted in principle, and as a point of principle, to end the borough's practice, over many years, of funding places for Roman Catholic children at a co-educational Catholic grammar school, St. Bede's college, outside the borough, at a cost not much greater than that of places in the maintained sector. That will limit parental choice. It will restrict choice for Catholic parents in my constituency, end the availability of co-educational grammar school places for their children and lead, in many cases, to significant personal problems. I am receiving many letters from constituents on those matters. For example, a lady who wrote to me from Timperley is a single mother with daughters. She decided that instead of her daughters being educated in a single-sex environment, they should go to a co-educational school. They are being educated at St. Bede's. She is worried about the possibility that that facility would be withdrawn, which would be a negative move. If parents make such a choice, it is important that co-educational schooling should be available for their children. I am concerned that, under Labour control, the borough of Trafford is taking a different view.

Another family in Timperley has two children already at St. Bede's college, and a younger son and daughter. If the council's proposals go ahead, the parents would be forced to send the younger son and daughter to two different single-sex schools, leading to the difficult situation of four children in the same family being obliged to go to three separate schools—a logistical problem which the borough of Trafford must address.

At present, some 60 pupils a year go to St. Bede's college from the borough of Trafford. Those pupils cannot readily be absorbed by the other Catholic grammar schools in the borough which have recently joined the grant-maintained sector. The fact that St. Ambrose college and Loretto convent school both chose to opt into the grant-maintained sector, having previously been independent grammar schools, is a clear example of the success of grant-maintained schooling and its attractiveness for many parents.

The cost of education at St. Bede's is virtually the same as in the maintained sector. There is no financial reason for the borough council's action, which will limit choice and return to the educational apartheid referred to in the White Paper. It is claimed that greater partnership with independent schools is welcomed, but, in practice, where the real choices are being made, that option is being removed from parents, whether through the abolition of the assisted places scheme or through the removal of access to denominational schools.

Parents in my constituency view the White Paper with trepidation. It leaves more questions to be answered than it answers. It sets out many threats to the schools that we hold dear. I should welcome assurances from the Minister on the issues that I have raised, especially an assurance that the grant-maintained schools and the grammar schools in my constituency will remain.

12.32 pm
Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

It is a privilege to take part in the debate, even though the Chamber is extremely cold. For that reason, I shall keep my contribution brief.

When we had the opportunity to question the Secretary of State in the Chamber after publication of the White Paper, I said that I believed that it heralded a new era for education in Britain. The White Paper, the legislation that will follow it in the autumn, and the culture and practice that it must engender in our schools are vital ingredients of the Government's crusade to raise educational standards and opportunity, not for a few children, but for every child in every school in every part of Britain.

The White Paper is a defining moment for British education. It brings to an end the sterile and divisive debate on educational structures which, I am afraid, was reflected again in the old Conservatism in part of the contribution of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). The White Paper opens a much more vital and fertile debate on educational standards.

The contribution from the shadow education Minister, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), revealed the huge difference between the Conservatives and Labour. For 18 years, we had a culture of blame. The Government blamed the LEAs, the schools, the teachers and even the children for failures.

Through many ministerial statements, this Government have boldly created a culture of responsibility to replace a culture of blame. We accept responsibility for standards in education and we have set out the roles of LEAs, schools, teachers, parents and children in raising standards.

Mrs. Laing

It is true that the Conservative Government blamed certain local education authorities for many things that went wrong with education—as the hon. Lady is well aware. However, can the hon. Lady give any examples of anyone blaming children for problems in education? That is what she asserted.

Ms Hodge

I can remember many instances when Ministers did just that. Even this morning, the Opposition education spokesperson referred to equality and said that some children could not achieve. That was part of her thesis on why equality would reduce, rather than raise, standards. Children are being blamed for not achieving. There are many other examples of the previous Government apportioning blame: they never accepted responsibility for raising educational standards for all children in Britain.

The new agenda defines the end of an era when success was measured only by the undoubted success of a few children in a few schools. It highlights the Government's determination that all children in all schools can, and will, succeed. That is a real change of emphasis. It also heralds the end of an era when people thought that input—how much money was spent in schools—was the only variable that affected educational standards. The obsession with input, admissions policies and children's backgrounds has bedevilled education debates for too long.

The White Paper introduces the idea that outcomes count and that whatever a child's background, he or she can and must achieve more. That is a vital point.

Another crucial principle underpins the White Paper and, I think, strikes a chord with many parents in Britain. We hear much about the schools that excel and those that are failing. However, most children attend schools where they just survive: they just get by. They may achieve a little, but they fail to achieve their full potential. I know that from my experience of my four children who have attended a range of primary and secondary schools in London.

My children have had head teachers who are inspirational leaders of their schools, and head teachers who refuse to recognise that there are any problems and allow their schools to decline or not achieve their capacity. I have seen class and subject teachers who, through their teaching, have enthused my children and others and have brought out the best in their students. There are other teachers for whom the children have no respect and in whom they have no confidence. Those teachers succeed merely in turning children off a particular subject.

As the Minister said, we have only one chance at childhood and one chance to learn in childhood. We must not throw away that unique opportunity by tolerating failure or mediocrity. That is what the White Paper is all about—promoting excellence for all.

The White Paper covers a range of issues, but I shall focus on just two, not because they are the only two that matter but because I believe them to be of crucial importance. The first issue is head teachers. The second is children in their early years.

There is widespread recognition that the role of head teachers is crucial in raising the standard of education. That is not a big surprise, as any organisation will prosper depending on the quality of its leadership. Quality of leadership is the most essential ingredient in any successful organisation, including schools. It is a necessary condition to achieve success. Without a first-rate head teacher, one cannot achieve all the other things that we know make up a good school—a culture of excellence, the recruiting of other good teachers in the classroom, good management, both financial and administrative, and effective partnerships.

Yet only now, under the Labour Government, are we really beginning to take seriously the business of raising the quality of our head teachers. We need to reflect a little on the legacy that we inherited. In its 1995–96 annual report, Ofsted said that leadership was poor in one in seven primary schools, and in one in 10 secondary schools. I have not included the category of "satisfactory", because we should be going for excellence of leadership. The fact that so many schools have poor leadership is an indictment of the current system.

I was looking recently at figures on recruitment compiled by the Teacher Training Agency, which undertook an analysis of advertisements for head teachers in the national press. From 1 January to 30 May in the years 1995–97, the number of advertisements for primary school head teachers increased by 61 per cent. That tells us something about what is happening to the confidence of people in the job. In the same period, the number of advertisements for secondary school head teachers increased by 51 per cent. Worse still, in January 1997, 21 per cent. of the advertisements that appeared in the national press for primary school heads, were readvertisements. Schools have been unable to recruit people to run those schools from the supply of teachers. In London, 50 per cent. of advertisements for primary heads that month were readvertisements.

Mr. Don Foster

The hon. Lady is raising an issue which concerns all of us. I have just received a written answer from the Minister which tells me that the number of premature retirements of head teachers has continued to increase. In 1996–97, a total of 1,283 heads and 1,089 deputy heads took premature retirement. That figure is up on that of last year, which was also very high.

Ms Hodge

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving the House those figures. I was, of course, aware that the previous Secretary of State's announcement of the ending of the facility for early retirement led to an immediate influx of head teachers choosing to retire. That has created a massive crisis for the incoming Government—an enormous challenge for them if they really wish to make a reality of raising education standards.

There is not only a crisis in head teacher recruitment; the situation has not been helped by the attacks on teachers that took place under the previous Government. That is why I warmly welcome some of the measures in the White Paper, and the fact that we have put education at the top of the agenda. That, in itself, sends a message to all the professionals working in the field that we care about the job that they do for our children and for future generations.

Mr. Don Foster

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way to me a second time, and I promise not to intervene again in her speech. She talked about the attacks on teachers, but does she agree that the Minister for School Standards was right to say that the best person to judge teachers and their performance is the head teacher? Does she agree that it does not serve the profession well if, as announced by the chief inspector only two days ago, a crude three-point scale is to be used to judge teachers' performance? In particular, is it not wholly wrong for a teacher to be graded in the bottom of those three categories on the basis of what could have been observation of only one lesson, possibly not even the whole of that lesson? Does the hon. Lady agree that a stop must be put to that immediately?

Ms Hodge

I agree entirely that, in the end, the judgment of whether a teacher is competent must be made by the head teacher. However, various mechanisms can be used to encourage the head to have a look at the performance of a particular teacher and come to that judgment. One of those could be an Ofsted inspection. An inspector could draw a head's attention to what he or she believed was an inadequate performance, but, in the end, the judgment must be that of the head teacher.

I shall digress slightly, to tell the hon. Gentleman a story about my own children. Two of the siblings, who were at the same school, came home and complained about the quality of a teacher who taught them both for a certain subject. One child found the quality of teaching so poor that I was having difficulty in getting her to attend the school. She felt that her time would be better spent in working for her GCSEs in the library than in attending the class.

I therefore wrote to the head teacher, which was an appropriate thing to do. I drew her attention to the fact that my daughter felt that the teacher lacked quality. I was an external person, a parent, and I had never observed the teacher. I was simply responding to my child's views and drawing the head's attention to the quality of the teaching.

I think that that was an appropriate thing to do, and I would not put it in a category very different from what is done by an inspector who may spend an hour or so observing a teacher and then draw the head's attention to the quality of the teaching.

In my case, the head wrote back saying that I had made a serious allegation, which I had better substantiate. I replied with an angry letter saying that it was not my task to substantiate the allegation, but the head's task to observe the teacher in the class and find out whether there was any substance in my daughter's feeling that she was not being properly taught. There is a role for the inspector, but, in the end, the responsibility is that of the head teacher.

I said earlier that putting education at the top of the agenda would inspire renewed confidence and, I hope, ease the way to our being able to recruit better head teachers. Introducing a general teaching council will be vital if we are to restore self-confidence in the profession and encourage competent teachers to come forward and become heads.

The extra money that this new Labour Government have injected into the education service is vital as part of the restoration of confidence and, therefore, of our ability to raise standards. The support that we have given does not, however, mean that we can tolerate mediocrity or failure. That is why the introduction of a statutory qualification for head teachers is welcome and crucial. I hope that Ministers will consider widening the field from which we recruit head teachers.

Recent research shows that head teachers spend only a small amount of time teaching in the classroom. A primary head will spend about 12 per cent. of his or her time on teaching and a secondary head half that.

Ms Estelle Morris

If that.

Ms Hodge

If that, indeed. Do we need good teachers to make good heads? Should we not look at the advanced skills teacher post as a way in which to keep good teachers in the classroom and, therefore, look at a wider range of skills when we recruit heads? People with other skills and other backgrounds could make excellent heads and managers of their schools. The skills required to run a school are not the same as the skills required to be an effective classroom teacher. I urge Ministers to explore options.

At present, the appraisal system for head teachers varies in its effectiveness and we need to revisit that point. It is odd that the chair of a governing body is not included in the appraisal system. The chair may be consulted and asked for information, but, outside GM schools, he or she plays no role in the appraisal system. If the chair of a governing body is to fulfil his or her job, he or she must be incorporated into the process.

I find it odd that a head teacher can cross off the list heads by whom they do not want to be appraised. Again, that denies the objectivity that we seek in the appraisal system. As we define the new role of the local education authority in the White Paper, we should define more closely the role of the LEA in appraising head teachers and taking the task more seriously. If the LEA is there to raise educational standards, it should play an active role in the appraisal of head teachers.

What do we do about poor head teachers? There are huge difficulties in removing head teachers who are not up to the job. It is difficult to remove them, yet it is easy to destroy the standards in a school if poor head teachers are not removed quickly. The removal of a head is more important than the removal of an individual teacher.

The only way in which a poor head teacher can be removed quickly is if everybody agrees—if the head agrees to go quietly and probably at great expense, if the chair of governors and the governing body agree that the head should go and if the LEA is willing to assist. If those three parties do not agree, it can take not just 18 months but years to remove a head teacher from a school where he or she is not providing excellent leadership. That undermines the school and damages the life choices of a generation of children. I urge Ministers to review that procedure so that we can look, as we have with teachers, at a mechanism that is fair to teachers, but, most important, fair to children and ensures their rights.

The White Paper also deals with education in the early years. I very much welcome the speed with which Ministers have acted on nursery vouchers. I welcome the decision to phase them out and replace them with a nursery place for all four-year-olds. We all know that the nursery voucher scheme has been wasteful and bureaucratic, as we said it would be when we were in opposition. It has led to a cut in the number of places available to young children and to a decline in standards, partly because four-year-olds have been pushed into over-sized reception classes and partly because of the low expectations associated with the desirable outcomes.

I congratulate the Government on moving fast on a number of issues. About 50 to 60 LEAs have already established early years forums and brought in early years development plans. We have already issued guidance so that all LEAs will have an early years development plan for 1998–99, working with the voluntary and private sectors. Despite rumours to the contrary, there will be nursery places for all four-year-olds in 18 months, as promised in our manifesto.

I welcome the introduction of early excellence centres, because those will be the start of our bringing together child care and education, a move which is long overdue in education policy. It is important to do that because 50 per cent. of the intellectual development of a child takes place in those first crucial five years and because the nature of families is changing so fast.

However, if we are to achieve real progress in the early years, the Government need to take some action in the legislation that they will be developing in connection with the White Paper. I urge Ministers to further the integration of child care and education in the forthcoming Bill. We need to legislate to create a unified statutory framework for that integration.

At present, local authorities are required to produce two reports, one for the early years forum, which will give them an early years development plan, and one under the Children Act 1989 for the early years service—one for up to five-year-olds, and one for up to eight-year-olds. Those have different standards and different child-adult ratios, which is a recipe for confusion rather than integration. We need one framework and one Act that will contain a common framework for registration and for inspection, and common standards in terms of child-staff ratios, space, qualifications and other such issues. We must define that carefully to ensure that we maintain, as a social services function, a rigorous and effective framework for the protection of children at risk.

I urge Ministers to take on board the legacy that they have inherited in relation to four-year-olds in schools. Most of those four-year-olds are receiving an inappropriate education in an inappropriate environment, with an inappropriate curriculum.

This is an exciting time in education. It is a time for new thinking and a new approach. It is a time when no holds will be barred in the pursuit of excellence. It is a time for a new partnership to be constructed between parents, children, teachers, schools, LEAs and the Government. It is a time when the nation's children can look forward to educational opportunity of a quality that every parent, employer and politician knows is right and important. I congratulate Ministers on publishing this important White Paper and look forward to the legislation that it will bring in the autumn, in the hope and confidence that it will facilitate in Britain's schools a better future for all our children.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Several hon. Members are trying to catch my eye and if there is some restraint on the length of speeches, I hope that they may all have the opportunity to speak.

12.58 pm
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for enabling me to contribute to this debate on the most important domestic issue that our country faces in the years ahead.

At the heart of Conservative education thinking was a recognition that giving schools freedom combined with responsibility would lead to improved standards, greater choice and extended accountability of the education service, both to the consumers of the product and to the wider community. In substantial measure, that philosophy worked. The outputs were favourable. The score sheet is positive. My fear is that the consequence of the present White Paper, whatever good intentions may underlie it, will be to drive the process backwards and to reverse the accomplishments of the past 18 years.

In the presence of the Under-Secretary of State, I shall begin on what I hope will be accepted by the House as a genuinely charitable note. In a limited number of important areas, the Labour party at national level has undergone an apostolic conversion. It has moved from hostility to the national curriculum to welcoming it. It opposed league tables, but now supports them. After ridiculing the notion that there was scope for improvement in literacy and numeracy standards, it now embraces the cause of improvement in that sphere. It had an absolutely derogatory attitude towards Ofsted, but now recognises the merits of that body and its important role in education. The Labour party had a palpable disregard for the appalling standards in many teacher training establishments, but it now recognises that the reform of teacher training has to be at the heart of educational advance.

Labour has travelled a long way, at least in terms of establishing a superior rhetoric and that is welcome. In so far as that can be followed through by practical initiatives, by attention to detail, by an understanding of the targets that need to be set and by an appreciation of the ways in which they will be met, the country will applaud the Government. In so far as they are not able to follow through, we shall see that they are exposed as believers only in the theory who cannot grasp the essentials of what is required in practice. At this stage, I acknowledge that there has been some change.

My overall concern about the White Paper spans many elements. There are several problems in the document, the first of which is that at its heart there is an innate contradiction. Ministers have said that they wish to raise standards and that they charge schools with the primary responsibility for achieving that outcome. However, they afford to local education authorities a centrality in the process which many of us believe that the experience of recent years does not warrant. Many of us contend that, given the prevalence of Labour LEAs, the situation is not that they can provide a solution but that they are part of the problem of endemic low standards in many parts of our country. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will address that point as it worries not just Conservative Members but many parents and governors and others with a genuine and continuing interest in the quality of public sector education that we offer.

I have a vested interest in the subject. I cannot comment on the expense incurred in the education of the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) as it is not a subject on which I am an expert, but I say categorically that I have an interest in the quality of state schools because I went to one. I attended a relatively modest comprehensive school in the Finchley constituency of my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher, and I have consistently maintained that I got to university despite, and not because of, my attendance at that school. I had a few outstanding teachers, but there were serious problems in the state-funded service. I am therefore committed to the dramatic enhancement of the quality of the state service upon which, realistically, the vast majority of our children will depend. There is no doubt about my objectives in this matter.

My first concern relates to local education authorities, to which the White Paper proposes to grant more powers. Each school will be obliged to prepare a plan which will be submitted to and be subject to the approval of the LEA. The Minister of State, who is not in his place, took pains to assure us earlier in the debate that the capacity of an LEA to intervene would be limited. He said that there would be benign, harmless intervention, only when it was essential, but he did not persuade Conservative Members because he did not deny that LEAs will be able to challenge the views of schools in their local education plans and interfere in the contents of plans. That rings alarm bells in my head and in those of many other hon. Members. If Ministers are anxious to disprove that point, they must assuage our fears in their response to this debate.

It is simply not true that intervention, as is said in the White Paper, will be in inverse proportion to success. The point was eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) at the outset of the debate, but it bears repetition: successful schools will be obliged to seek the approval of unsuccessful education authorities for the school plans that they have devised. The chronic illogicality of that is so apparent that only an exceptionally clever person could fail to see so simple a point.

Why should the London Oratory school, a school of considerable interest to a number of Labour Members, be obliged to seek the approval of Hammersmith and Fulham education authority—a gold star performer seeking the approval of an authority in the lowest rank of education administrators anywhere in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Brady

Does my hon. Friend agree that the idea is particularly illogical in the case of grant-maintained schools, which were desperate to get away from their LEAs in the first place?

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point to which, if he will forgive me, I shall allude further later, because it concerns one of the key differences between Conservative and Labour Members.

Another major concern is that the White Paper will result in more bureaucracy. That is clear beyond peradventure. It is littered with references to plans: school plans, local education authority plans, Department for Education and Employment plans, early years forums plans—plans, plans, plans. I am concerned that the end result will be a profusion of paperwork and a paucity of practical work that is of benefit to the schools that are at the heart of our debate. Clearly, plans involve costs—opportunity, time, staff and governor costs—and parental involvement is required. My anxiety is that we should have a good education service, not a high-quality bureaucracy with jobs for the boys and girls.

I am also concerned that the Department and the Secretary of State will be afforded greater powers that are not justified. A massive centralisation is proposed, involving an unjustified arrogation of new authority to the Secretary of State. It appears on initial inspection that the standards task force is to be largely a talking shop, but there is also to be a standards and effectiveness unit. That rings alarm bells in the heads of Conservative Members, because it is not clear what resources that body will have, how many staff it will employ or to what extent, if at all, it will be able to interfere in individual schools' affairs.

There is a reference to the Government's desire to create a national database with individual identification numbers for every pupil in the country. That worries me, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me. It is not clear to me why that amount and specificity of information should be required centrally. That has an Orwellian ring about it and it is not justified in any way. It leaves schools and local education authorities both dependent upon and vulnerable to the whim of the Executive power.

One of the gravest defects of the White Paper is the scant attention paid to the intended treatment of grammar schools and grant-maintained schools. I speak with particular interest in both. I have an excellent grammar school in my Buckingham constituency, the Royal Latin school, where 98 per cent. of the children score grades A to C in five GCSEs. It has a superb head teacher, quality governors, motivated staff and assiduous pupils. That school is achieving and I say to the Under-Secretary of State in all candour that I hope that that it is not the intention of the Government to interfere with or detract from the autonomy of that school. If that is what is intended by the Government—the subject is to be farmed out to some subsequent consultation paper—Ministers will discover that those schools will not lightly give up the freedom or the excellence which they have secured for themselves.

If the Government are genuinely interested in the creation of a new consensus in education they must respect the autonomy of those institutions and appreciate their importance. The same goes for grant-maintained schools. There are a number of extremely competent ones in my constituency, for example, the Waddesdon Church of England school. Since it became grant maintained, it has built a new science block and, to its credit, 58 per cent. of its pupils scored grades A to C in five GCSEs. That is an excellent record. Similarly, Brookmead combined school in the eastern part of my constituency has an excellent record. Since becoming grant maintained, it has built a science block and a swimming pool and has secured excellent results at key stage two. A situation to be admired—72 per cent. of its pupils score to the accepted standard in English, 78 per cent. in mathematics and 81 per cent. in science.

The final example of a grant-maintained school is that of Overstone school, with which I am particularly familiar, and which I have visited. It is an excellent institution with a superb headmaster and an excellent chairman of governors. It, too, has not only improved its facilities since becoming grant maintained, but its pupils have secured far better results than the national average at key stage two—68 per cent. of its pupils score to the accepted standard in English; 66 per cent. in mathematics; and 68 per cent. in science.

The Under-Secretary of State and her colleagues consistently emphasise that their preoccupation is with standards and not with structure. I suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends that there is a problem between what they say and what the reality demonstrates. They cannot conceivably be objecting to the standards that those schools are delivering: rather, the objection is to their structure, and it is with their structure that the Government wish and intend to interfere. The Government are talking about replacing them with foundation schools and about fiddling around with the funding formula.

The hon. Member for Barking sniggered and sneered about grant-maintained schools throughout the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). That is not justified. Even changing the name means new notepaper, additional costs, a greater burden and a diversion of time and resources away from the important subject of delivering quality education on to the needless frippery of educational administration. All because of Government decisions. I hope that Ministers will reflect upon that.

I welcome the fact that in the White Paper the Government have embraced the cause of the reform of teacher training. That is to their credit. I hope that it will work effectively in practice. It is, however, worth reminding ourselves of the background to the situation in which we now find ourselves. Within the "psycho-semiotic framework", the shared reading lesson is viewed as an "ideological construct" where events are layed out and children must learn to position themselves in three interlocking contexts. The Under-Secretary of State will be relieved to know that those are not my words, and I do not for one moment suggest that they are hers or those of my hon. Friend the shadow Minister: they are the words spewed forth from the pen of Kimberley, Meek and Miller, three practitioners in teacher training.

It is precisely that sort of unintelligible jargon, combined with growing evidence that a significant minority of children were underperforming in the three Rs, that provoked national alarm at the beginning of the 1990s. The former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), responded to that concern. The former Government established the Teacher Training Agency. Earlier this year, she made proposals for a core curriculum for teacher training. It appears that the Government intend to build on that. I welcome that decision, but I regret the delay in implementation of the curriculum.

I strongly counsel Ministers to ensure that the huge number of failing and inadequate Labour local education authorities, which are addicted to the egalitarian nostrums of the trendy teaching of the 1960s, do not get their hands on the process and prevent the use of the most effective methods of teaching, especially of the three Rs, in our schools. If they can implement the proposed reform of teacher training in the way that we would hope, there should be a consensus, which will be welcomed.

Several hon. Members mentioned the debate on class sizes on which I need touch for only a few moments. It seems clear—there has been a signal to that effect—that in Scotland at least, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) recognises that it will not be possible to deliver on reducing class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. Whether that will apply to England and Wales remains to be seen, but it is important that Ministers avoid two pitfalls.

First, we do not want increased central direction of admissions policy, which would mean that individual parental choices are no longer respected. Secondly, and this is especially applicable to hon. Members who serve rural constituencies, we do not want a forced exodus of pupils from popular but often small and overcrowded village schools to urban institutions that neither they nor their parents want. If that is what is afoot, and the Government think that the likely existence of surplus places will allow them to fulfil their general election pledge at the expense of the education opportunities and life chances of many children in rural areas, they are running a big risk.

Several hon. Members discussed the costs of the White Paper. Costs there will be, and I doubt whether they can be met. It is not with that that I want to detain House; that is the Government's responsibility. We wish the Government well in so far as their objectives are to extend standards, improve choice, and bolster accountability—it would be wrong for us not to do so—but we have grave doubts about their capacity in practice to meet their aspirations.

Although the Labour party is currently very jaunty, it would be unwise simultaneously to raise expectations and to put into effect policies that will dash the hopes of large numbers of parents and children. If that happens, the scale of disappointment will be all the greater. The Government must resist that temptation. If they can, the country will benefit; if they cannot, education will suffer and, ultimately, they will suffer the political penalty.

1.18 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

I shall try to be brief so as to give other hon. Members the chance to speak. In the interests of brevity, I shall resist the temptation to launch an encomium of the White Paper, which I regard as excellent. It is called, "Excellence in schools" and itself makes the point that excellence can still be improved on. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not mind if I mention a couple of things that I believe could improve it.

In particular, I should like to draw the attention of the House to two omissions in the White Paper which concern my constituents. The first relates to what might be termed input and the second relates to output.

In respect of input, parents in Hertfordshire do not want their children to go to schools covered by another local education authority, but the education system there is in chaos as a result of the policies of the Conservative Government. When their child is three years old, parents are reduced to begging for a place at a school that is higher up the league table than another school, knowing that it is a feeder school for the secondary school that they want their child eventually to attend. Parents of children aged three and four are engaged in a terrible fight for school places.

As has been said already today, there is no real choice. The parents of children aged four and 10 trek around local schools, trying to make an informed decision about where to send their children, only to find that the number of applicants is sometimes double the number of available places. Many of them turn to the appeals process, which is conducted on the sly by an independent panel, before being told that there is no place for their children at the school of their choice as it was full before the panel met. If they had applied for a place at a popular school, their application falls through the system and large numbers of them feel dumped on.

Many parents who are sufficiently wealthy then say, "A plague on this rotten system—I am going to take my children out of it and pay for them to go to a private school; I will then insulate them from being put into a school that does not meet their educational needs."

The Conservative Government devised a system without much thought or planning. They despised education experts and, as a result, hundreds of parents felt it necessary to pull their children out of the public education system as it did not respond to their needs. The White Paper makes it clear that the system that we have inherited is intolerable and must be changed and that we must seek to provide the resources, encouragement and support that schools require so that the needs of disappointed parents and their neglected children will be met.

My constituents are also concerned about the output of schools. I received a letter from a Roman Catholic priest in my constituency saying that his church is has been repeatedly attacked by youngsters aged 12 or 13 throwing stones at the windows and daubing paint on the building.

Many people feel rightly that parents have a significant responsibility for the unconstrained behaviour of their children. The White Paper makes the point that the way in which children turn out results from a partnership between parents and schools. Many people feel that schools are failing children in that respect. We have to ensure that schools play their part in seeking to change the unacceptable behaviour of their pupils. Some will say that it is a matter for the police, but the problem is not simply that certain kids behave in an unacceptable way which threatens to destroy their welfare and the fabric of their lives; it is that they do not realise that what they are doing is wrong.

That brings me to a very important perspective on the White Paper, in which there is a tiny section on citizenship. Truth to tell, one role that most schools accept is not only to train people in the art of citizenship, but to train them to think about whether what they are doing with their lives or their time is right or wrong. That is not a simple matter: all of us, both inside and outside the House, in our personal lives, are involved in a moral journey to try to improve our understanding of the ethical dimension of life. The White Paper, however, does not specifically address that dimension: it does not ask schools to do something that the national curriculum fails to do, which is to embed into the schooling process an enhancement of moral understanding, so that at the very least if children in the later stages of their school career behave badly—as we all do, from time to time—they will know that they have behaved badly. They will understand what it is to treat others with respect and to have a moral conscience. That matter is not addressed in the White Paper, and nor are many others.

I conclude by pointing out that the form of the paper asks people to make a contribution to the debate and gives a reasonable time scale for doing so. I do not understand why Conservative Members cannot make constructive criticisms when the form and structure of the White Paper encourages such comments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) said, let us try to get a sense of agreement about the direction of policy on schools. Our schools are in a mess, both in terms of structure and, in many cases, in terms of output. We can do better and, with many of the ideas in the White Paper, we will do better.

1.26 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I shall be brief, because I am aware that several hon. Members still wish to speak. In particular, I do not wish to deprive the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) of the opportunity to say a few words, because for many years she has been involved in the provision of education in my constituency.

I planned to begin by saying that, of course, we are all in agreement that education matters and is a very high priority in the political outlook on both sides of the House, but, in noting the number of hon. Members present, it occurs to me that it is a great pity that we are having such an important debate on a Friday. I am sure that many colleagues on both sides of the House would have liked to be present to discuss education, but there are even fewer hon. Members on the Government Benches than on the Opposition Benches. Before you criticise me for my arithmetic, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should say that I was taught proportional fractions at a very early age and I am quite certain that, proportionally, there are more Conservative Members than Labour Members here today.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

There are even more of us.

Mrs. Laing

I concede that there are also proportionally more Liberal Democrats than Labour Members here. I am sure that they give high priority to education, as do we all.

In the interests of brevity, I shall confine my remarks to the issue of grant-maintained schools. Some Labour Members have said that the White Paper marks the beginning of a new era of ideas and energy. I am afraid that they are wrong. The ideas and energy in education policy were there throughout the years of Conservative government.

One of the most successful policies that we introduced was the introduction of grant-maintained schools, which was welcomed by hundreds of thousands of parents. In the past eight years, the policy has revolutionised the attitudes and achievements of hundreds of schools and thousands of pupils.

The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who is no longer in the Chamber, criticised people who sit in the corner and say, "No, you can't do this and you can't do that," and take energy away from the provision of education. Grant-maintained schools are one policy through which we brought in energy, but Labour Members said, "No, you can't do that." I remember clearly the Minister for School Standards in another role before he came to the House, trying to stop the setting up of grant-maintained schools in his part of the world at the time, as did others. He did so by such petty actions as stopping the football teams of maintained schools playing against those of grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Bercow


Mrs. Laing

I entirely agree. If that is not stopping energy coming in to help education, I do not know what is.

Likewise, we introduced assessment and testing, which are important and which the White Paper welcomes and wants to build on. We shall not forget that if it had not been for our policies and the determination of the Conservative Government, there would be no assessment and testing. Teachers would not be able to tell what a child can do, but also what they cannot do, and have the means to assist a child who needs extra help, which is extremely important.

I want to pay a short tribute to the work of the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation and, in particular, its chairman, Sir Robert Balchin, who has not had enough recognition for his contribution to the education world in the past eight years. He has given his time and energy in an entirely voluntary capacity, to help improve the education of hundreds of thousands of children.

The White Paper talks about the involvement of parents. Grant-maintained schools were the very engine that involved parents in their children's education. By encouraging them to become involved, to sit on the governing bodies and to choose the direction of their children's school, we were giving all parents—not merely those who could afford to pay for it or those already involved in the teaching profession—involvement in their children's education, and giving them the choice that matters so much.

That is not a side issue. Hon. Members have said that what matters is the way in which the White Paper deals with issues that involve everyone. Of course, that matters, but the minorities matter, too. Children who need extra help, those who are particularly talented, children at grant-maintained schools and those in rural as opposed to urban areas all matter, and it is wrong to look only at the generality and ignore the particular.

What worries my constituents and me most is that the White Paper contains no clear proposal for how grant-maintained schools are to go forward. Parents are very concerned about that. Before it came to government, the Labour party led many of them to believe that they had nothing to fear if they sent their children to grant-maintained schools. Some parents trusted that undertaking, as the result at the ballot box showed us. Their trust on that, as on so many other policies, has been betrayed now that the Labour party is in government.

I want to make three brief points about the way in which grant-maintained schools are treated in the White Paper. The first concerns funding. The White Paper proposes that funding, instead of going directly to grant-maintained schools through the funding agency, should go via local education authorities. As a result, funds will go to bureaucrats, not to children—into offices, not into classrooms.

Bureaucracy is growing again. Instead of concentrating policies on schools and education, we are again talking about who will lay down the rules and what the bureaucrats will do. Power is flowing back to local education authorities and away from parents, teachers and governors.

Non-grant-maintained schools lose about 10 per cent. of their funding to pay for the overheads of local education authorities; grant-maintained schools keep that 10 per cent., but spend only about 5 per cent. of it on overheads and bureaucracy, so they spend the remaining 5 per cent. on providing extra members of staff. Can the Minister give an assurance that schools that are now grant maintained and which may, under the proposals in the White Paper, subsequently be called foundation schools, will be able to keep that 10 per cent? If they lose it, how will he justify the inevitable consequence—that they will make members of staff redundant? Heads and governors of grant-maintained schools want to know that, and that is what matters for the future education of the children in those schools.

My second point is that grant-maintained schools will lose the freedom that has brought them so much success in the past eight years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said. How much time and how many resources will those schools need to devote each year to producing a plan for submission to the local education authority—putting time, energy and funds into bureaucracy, instead of into the education of the children for whom they are responsible?

My third point concerns admissions policy. I do not want to overplay the question of the London Oratory school, but it is an extremely good example.

Mr. Byers

Try using another example.

Mrs. Laing

I defend the right of the Prime Minister and some of his colleagues, as I defend that of thousands of parents throughout the country, to choose which school to send their children to. I shall continue to defend that right, but will the Minister defend it?

Can parents who currently send their children to grant-maintained schools outside their area or who exercise other choices in education, which they were given by our policies, continue to do so? If they have one child in a grant-maintained school outside their area, will parents be able to exercise that choice in future for the child's younger siblings? I believe that the Minister is not listening; perhaps he is not interested in my question. I defend not only the Prime Minister's right to choose, but that of hundreds of thousands of parents throughout the country. It would be interesting to know this afternoon whether parents will continue to have that right.

I have another question to ask about admissions policy. Heads and governors may be quite happy with a class of, let us say, 32 or 33 pupils. Will the LEA or the Department for Education and Employment tell the heads and governors of a grant-maintained school that they may not keep 32 or 33 pupils in a class? I do not believe that the matter will arise in practice, because I do not believe that the funding will be available to produce the additional teachers and classrooms that will be necessary. However, if, in theory, the funding were to become available, would heads and governors be told that two or three children must leave the school because a class contained more than 30 pupils?

It is nonsense to say that the quality of education depends on the number of children in a class. Hon. Members of my generation should think back to their own childhood. I was taught in a class of 40 from the age of five to the age of 10, and there was nothing wrong with the way in which I was taught or what I was taught. Many who were in that class with me have gone on to be extremely bright and high-achieving people. It did them no harm to be taught in a class of 40. There is too much emphasis on such bureaucracy.

The White Paper is full of fine platitudes and vivid pictures. It is full of words such as "crusade", "pledge" and "passion", but it says nothing that will lead to higher standards, apart from the fact that, as I pointed out earlier, there are certain policies that started off as our policies and which have been given different names. They are still the same policies, however, and I do not blame the Government for taking them forward, but I condemn the Government's hypocrisy. For 18 years, they criticised us for doing the very things that they now want to do.

We also see in the White Paper plenty of old Labour—many of the principles that have always been in Labour's education policies. What the White Paper really says is that if all children cannot have the very best of education, no children should have it. That is what it is saying by ignoring parental choice and grant-maintained schools, and by ignoring particular instances and always speaking about the generality.

That is the policy through which the previous Labour Government, under whom many of us were educated, let standards fall. I remember it because that is when I was educated, and so do my hon. Friends, who are agreeing with me. That is the attitude that let standards fall. It is sad that after so many years of achievement, widening of freedom and choice, and lifting of standards for children, the new Labour Government are looking back to those old attitudes.

1.41 pm
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

The White Paper is an attempt to bring a more level playing field to our children. I hesitate to talk about playing fields, however, because in Tower Hamlets in my constituency, not one single school has a playing field, never mind a level one. The disparities at every level in the education system are great and must be overcome. That is what the White Paper sets out to do.

My mother was a teacher who taught in inner London for more than 20 years. She often lamented the fact that many children arrive at school unteachable. We have heard much talk about fitting school leavers for society, but less talk of making our society fit to educate our children.

William Blake's dictum that we become what we behold is as probable as it is chilling. That is why we must acknowledge that responsibility for education goes beyond the school gates—and, indeed, beyond the front door. Heaping all the blame on the education system, as Conservative Members often do, is analogous to blaming the current deficit in the water supply on that liquid's malicious tendency to find its own level, rather than on the water companies' failure to mend their own pipes.

I applaud the Government's commitment to raising educational aspirations and to placing education at the heart of society's agenda. My generation wants training and high-quality education to equip us for the skills revolution that is already taking place. The rate and the speed of change is phenomenal. My generation has the weight of history on our shoulders and the light of the next millennium in our eyes, but we need the force and the strength of government behind us. That is why I am grateful to the Government for putting education at the top of the agenda. Let us make no mistake: we can deliver for Britain only if Britain delivers for us. That means an education system for the many, not the few, which involves the many, not the few.

That is what we have done in Tower Hamlets: we have reached out to a wide range of companies and City institutions and to families and parents, because we realise that it is everyone's responsibility. Improvements can be seen everywhere in my constituency in terms of staying-on rates, the number of children passing examinations, nursery education and school attendance rates. The number of 16-year-olds with five or more GCSEs has trebled in Tower Hamlets since 1989. We also have the highest level of nursery provision of any London borough.

We are doing what we can, but it is unfair that we must still battle against the vagaries of inner-city deprivation that set back so many of our children. I have some experience of the difficulties facing children in those schools, because I am the only Member present in the Chamber who endured the Thatcherite experiment in education in the mid-1980s. You—I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker—Conservative Members have talked about how wonderful that experiment was. I suffered through it. My school saw class sizes increase and teacher numbers cut. I could choose from a diminished number of subjects. It is no good Conservative Members telling me that that did not affect my education—it did. I believe that you—if I do that once more, I am sure that I shall receive a severe reprimand. You are being exceptionally indulgent, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am most grateful.

My point is that my state comprehensive gave me a good education in spite of—not because of—the Government's actions at the time. That is why we must bolster and modernise the comprehensive principle. That is exactly what the White Paper does: it sets the goal of raising standards for everyone, which means equal opportunities for everyone. That brings me back to the question of level playing fields, or lack thereof.

It costs more to deliver education in Tower Hamlets. For example, the children in our classrooms speak 79 different languages, and a large proportion speak English as a second language. Can we imagine teachers in Surrey having to deal with those problems? No, we cannot, because they do not. One in three children in my constituency come from a family where no one is in work. There is no culture of learning, which makes it more difficult for teachers.

This White Paper will find the political will to bring excellence to all our schools. I have learnt one lesson from my more senior colleagues. Most hon. Members on both sides of the House begin each 20-minute speech by declaring their sincere intention to be brief. I, too, shall be brief. I conclude by quoting the 19th-century French historian, Jules Michelet. In 1846, he said: What is the first part of politics? Education. What is the second? Education. And the third? Education. I am delighted that, 150 years later, this White Paper is putting those ideas into practice.

1.48 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), not only for being my Member of Parliament in London but for meaning it when she said that she would be brief.

I intend to be rather positive about the White Paper throughout, but I start with a note that is a little less positive. I received a letter yesterday from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, which in normal circumstances would have been extremely welcome, but in this circumstance suggests that perhaps he has a sense of irony that I had not suspected, because he invited me last night to go to the Department to talk about the future of education in my constituency.

I had to reply to the right hon. Gentleman to say that I was afraid that I could not do so, because I would be in the Chamber discussing the capping order for Somerset, which will result in the loss of 90 teachers and in our class sizes going up, and will do immense damage to the education of children in Somerset. I speak with some passion about this, as a former leader of Somerset county council and former chairman of education in Somerset, and, indeed, having children now in Somerset schools. It seems an odd way to start the Government's mission to improve education standards, that their first executive action is to cut education in Somerset and thereby maintain the eighth year of real-terms cuts in the education service in the county.

That is the negative point. Now I move to the positive, because there is much in the White Paper to be commended. Indeed, much of it picks up points that came from people in my own area, when we launched a little consultation exercise in Somerset last year, which we called—not very imaginatively—2000 and beyond. It sought to put the local education authority in the context of the new millennium, and to look at what was happening in our schools, at people's aspirations for the education service in Somerset and at how we could meet those aspirations and find better ways of providing an education service.

Much of what is highlighted in the White Paper picks up on themes that were suggested in that consultation process. We heard the notion expressed this afternoon that class sizes do not matter. I have to say that they do. Of course, it is possible to have good teaching in a large class, just as it is possible to have poor teaching in a small class, but, on the whole, smaller class sizes mean more attention for the individual child and a better standard of teaching.

To bring down class sizes, a variety of measures will need to be taken—not just revenue should be available to employ teachers, but capital should be available to provide classrooms. That is a big problem in much of the country. In Somerset, we currently have 900 temporary classrooms, which is a ridiculous state of affairs. No one would run a commercial estate in that way, yet that is what Somerset is required to do. The capital that is needed to provide smaller classes and high-quality teaching is an essential element.

There is a call to address better the issues of citizenship, parenting and life skills. Those points came from parents, teachers and other people who are interested. The dissemination of good practice is another vital point. So often we seem to find LEAs and individual schools busy developing their own theory and practice without exchanging ideas and best practice. Surely the Department and LEAs play a vital role in ensuring that good practice is disseminated more freely.

I was so pleased to hear a Minister say a good word about teachers. It has been a long time coming in recent years. Teachers, by and large—with a few exceptions, of course—do an excellent job. Unless we say that every now and again, it will be hard to maintain the morale that is so essential if we are to have excellence in our teaching community.

I am pleased to see the progress—although, as I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), it is limited—that is being made on early years education. Like many other people, I am convinced from my own experience that the quality of early years education is essential to the rest of the educative process. We must put the investment in at that point—but properly, not through the voucher scheme, which not only failed to create a single extra place for four-year-olds in Somerset, but put into reverse the existing process of providing specialist nursery classes. If we can provide quality nursery education, we shall be making the investment that this country so desperately needs.

I am pleased to see that there is to be some reinforcement of the role of local education authorities. I believe that they have an important role to play, not in terms of controlling and managing what happens in schools, but in providing quality assurance, support and advocacy not only for the process of education, important though that is, but for the individual child within the school. That is the role of the LEA, and that is what good local education authorities are already doing. Let us see that buttressed by Government support.

I was pleased to hear so many hon. Members on both sides of the House warn against complacency in our schools. The Minister for School Standards concentrated on that in his speech. Standards must be raised in all schools, however well they may be achieving already.

It is easy to identify failing schools and to say that those are the ones that need the attention. However, it is more difficult to tell a school that is doing well—a school that may have a predominantly middle-class clientele and sail through its Ofsted inspection with a satisfactory report—"You, too, should be doing better, because, with the assets and skills that you have, you could get more out of each individual child." It is essential that that should happen.

I hope that the Minister will take proper account of the Audit Commission report, "Trading Places", in whose production I played a part, as I was member of the Audit Commission at the time. The policy gridlock described in the report is still in place and I see nothing in the White Paper to remove it. Indeed, there is a possibility that the reduction of class sizes will make things worse by adding to that gridlock. I do not know quite how one adds to a gridlock—perhaps by putting roadworks in the way. None the less, there is an added dimension there, which Ministers need to address.

I shall finish soon, because I am aware that the time is approaching when the debate must be summed up, but first I should like to say a word about education in rural areas—a topic which touches on some of the points made by, among others, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench.

Much of what we see in education policy, as in so many other areas of social policy in recent years, is based on a suburban model, which assumes that there is a choice of schools within easy walking distance and that there is social interaction between different education communities. It also assumes that unit costs are largely comparable across the whole of a local education authority's area and that transport costs are not a major element within an authority's costings.

In rural areas, none of those assumptions applies. In rural areas, we have what are effectively monopoly suppliers, in the form of secondary schools that may cover a hinterland with a radius of 10 or 15 miles. That means that there is no easy option, no easy choice.

Specialist provision is more difficult, too. We have small village schools, which I value enormously both in Somerset and elsewhere, because small schools are often excellent. None the less, they have their own problems. Small secondary schools serving areas of low population have their problems too, especially for the sixth form. How are they to provide the width of curriculum adequately to cater for the education of their children? That is an area in which IT may play an additional part. The introduction of extensive IT could help provide children with a wider range of curricular experience and opportunity. As of yet, that opportunity is not available.

In rural areas, transport becomes a significant factor and we pay an awful lot to bus children around. It is a growing and hardly a marginal cost in rural education. Capital provision is more difficult in rural areas and reliance on the private finance initiative will not be the answer. As we have discovered to our cost, trying to arrange a suitable package for the PFI in a rural area is extremely difficult. Special needs teaching becomes more difficult. The number of children who are available for social interaction is another difficulty, and unit costs are higher.

All those matters need to be addressed, so that we have excellence in education right across the country. The rural areas must not be forgotten in the equation.

2 pm

Mrs. Browning

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I promise to be brief in my summary, as I have already had one opportunity to outline the fact that the Opposition support some of the measures in the White Paper and to flag up our concerns.

One point that has come up many times in the debate—I hope that the Minister will take this comment in the spirit in which it is meant—is that there is still worry about the detail. Labour Members also mentioned that. The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), for example, mentioned that head teachers in his constituency had said that they wanted the details of many of the White Paper proposals.

The point was best summed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) who suggested to the Government that putting in more of the detail by consulting before producing the White Paper would have allayed many of the worries and would have enabled Ministers to come to the House with more detail and more answers to the many questions that the White Paper raises.

Many points were raised about particular concerns, one of which was admissions. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham explained how admissions procedures affected his constituency. He referred to educational refugees from London boroughs. I hope that the Minister will take on board the point that, in many cases, schools that have gained a good reputation have done so because people have been concerned about education in their local schools and have preferred their children to travel some distance out of the London boroughs to have access to what they consider to be a suitable education, whether because of the school's standards or because they want to exercise a preference in terms of religious denomination.

I was particularly concerned to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) speak of the worries of parents who can at present access an education for their children in a Catholic environment, but who see that option under threat. That is not the only example of the worries of parents who are currently able to access Catholic schools. As the Minister will know, because I have raised the matter on the Floor of the House, we have had a similar problem in Exeter. I have had correspondence from parents in Merseyside about a forthcoming problem with maintaining an option for education in a Catholic school. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West was speaking not only about his own concerns, but about concerns being raised around the country about what will happen if parents are denied their choice of school, especially when that choice is based not on standards alone, but on religious denomination.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) raised clearly the problems of existing grammar schools and grant-maintained schools. He also asked about the future role of LEAs, which I raised in my introductory remarks. If LEAs are to take on more powers and more responsibilities, we should like to have full details. When the Under-Secretary replies, she may be able to tell us what will be the power of the LEAs if they are to have control over or to scrutinise the plans of individual schools.

Will the powers be advisory, or statutory—which would enable LEAs to overturn specific details in a school's plan? Rightly, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham raised the concerns of both grammar and GM schools about what might happen to them when the LEA has control of scrutinising or even overturning those plans.

Equally, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) outlined her concerns in relation to GM schools. I know that Labour Members have castigated Conservative Members for daring even to mention grammar schools and GM schools. Of course, they are not the only schools, but, at the moment, they appear to be the only ones under threat, and parents and pupils are worried—I return to that word "worry". The White Paper has worried many people. If they are worried unnecessarily, the Minister will have an opportunity to allay those fears. We would welcome that.

Various Labour Members criticised me and my colleagues for not participating in this spirit of partnership and co-operation. That is not true. We have been straightforward about the parts of the White Paper that we support and will continue to support, but, again, one of the issues that worry people, as has been demonstrated in the debate, is where the additional funding will come from, particularly the additional funding that will evidently be required by LEAs to carry out all the new responsibilities that the White Paper will empower them to carry out.

I invite the Minister, in a spirit of co-operation, to participate in some partnership with Conservative Members. I am aware that the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who is not here today because he is speaking at an education conference, is writing to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions inviting him to announce immediately what the education part of the standard spending assessment for LEAs will be for the next financial year.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that there will be additional funding on top of the funding that was already stated in the Red Book. Therefore, there is no need to delay announcing what LEAs will have in their budget for the next financial year. If the Chancellor is as good as his word, that detailed information could be given to them now, so that we could allay the concerns of teachers and governing bodies. They have, of course, welcomed the fact that the Government have announced more education expenditure for the next financial year, but the big question is how much of it will be held back by LEAs to perform their own duties and exactly how much of it will go into the classroom. That question applies also to the amount of additional money that the Chancellor has earmarked for capital expenditure for the repair and maintenance of schools.

Now that the funding has been put into the public domain, there does not seem to be any reason why the Government cannot inform each LEA what its budget will be for next year, so that it can start to inform schools exactly what their budget will be next year. Otherwise, I fear, we shall have yet another few months of more worry, more fear and more uncertainty for teachers and governing bodies. There is an opportunity for the Minister, in partnership with the Opposition, to persuade the Chancellor to make that information available as quickly as possible.

2.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under—Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. The White Paper contains our plans for this Parliament and, I hope, beyond and we welcome contributions, from whichever quarter they come. Many of them have been good. I acknowledge that many Opposition Members have welcomed aspects of the White Paper and, rightly, been critical of other parts. That is their role in the House and outside, but I welcome the spirit in which many of them have come to the House: with a concern for education and children and a willingness to look at the White Paper. That is the feeling that we want to create over the consultation period. The White Paper sets out our ambitions for education, and describes the policies that will help to realise those ambitions. By proposing to engage in the widest possible consultation, we have acknowledged that the only way in which we can ever get it right is by using the energies, ideas and commitment of all partners in the education service, no matter what their political background.

As well as writing to every school, asking teachers to consider the White Paper, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has invited schools to hold meetings with parents to make sure that they are fully aware of the Government's wishes and are fully involved in contributing to what I hope will be a national debate.

We recognise the important role of governors. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) praised the new role of governors and rightly reminded us that they have many responsibilities. Although I heard what he said, I am afraid that we have put a further burden on them because the Secretary of State has asked that they, too, should meet to discuss the White Paper. We acknowledge the work currently done by governors. When the relationship between the governing body and the school is right, it is a tower of strength for the good of the children. When it is not right and when governors feel that they are burdened down with paperwork, it is a matter for concern. Governors play a special role in our education service and I hope that they will comment on the White Paper.

Ministers and officials in the Department have already started to present the White Paper's ideas at events throughout the country. After people have had time to read it and think about its ideas—over the summer holidays, if they have nothing else to do—we plan to hold several regional conferences in September at which I and fellow Ministers will be present to listen and discuss further.

I hope that if local consultations take place, hon. Members will want to take part in them. I am sure that even hon. Members who do not belong to the Labour party will want to listen to teachers, parents, governors, industry and employers in their areas. We shall treat comments from them in the same spirit of partnership and hope for the education service as comments from my hon. Friends. We shall use the results of the consultation to build on the White Paper's proposals, and the legislation that we shall need to implement some of those proposals will be formulated in the light of consultation responses. However, there are actions that we can take without legislation that will allow us to act quickly and effectively in focusing on some of our priorities.

I should like to go into greater detail on an aspect of the White Paper that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) and, I think in my absence, for which I apologise, by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I shall respond to some of the issues that they raised. They spoke about early years education. We must get that right. It is no coincidence that we lag behind some of our major competitors in terms of the percentage of children who receive early years education and in the percentage of our young people who gain external education qualifications.

The evidence about the importance of a child's early years is clear and has been there for some time. Despite that, for 17 years the Conservatives failed to do anything to promote good quality early years education. What action they did take, they got badly wrong. I should have preferred them to carry on doing nothing, but what they did resulted in the mess that we have picked up. Answering the needs of young children and their families is not done by leaving them to the market or by setting up expensive bureaucracies. The nursery voucher scheme wasted millions on bureaucracy and advertising, and resulted in providers competing for children, and parents scrabbling for places.

Pre-school facilities in some of the pilot authorities closed down and, throughout the experience, there was no evidence that a single extra place was created for three and four-year-olds. To put matters right, an essential first step was to abolish the nursery vouchers scheme, and that is what we have done.

The White Paper outlines what we will do next. The world has changed since the previous expansion of nursery education, which was as long ago as the 1950s and 1960s. The traditional nursery provision of half a day a week is no longer suitable for many parents, who have to or choose to work.

When my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards opened the debate, he said that investment in learning in the 21st century was the equivalent of investment in the machinery and technical innovation that were essential to the first industrial revolution. That is why the highest quality of education must remain at the centre of our early years programme and why the White Paper says that staff training and qualifications for early years providers, as well as ensuring that a qualified teacher is involved in each early years setting, is a matter of importance on which we want to seek views in the next few weeks.

Our early years service must support families as well as children. We must begin to try to bring together day care and early years education to create an integrated early years provision. I readily accept—perhaps this is the worry factor that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to—that there is much in the White Paper that is ambitious and sets high standards.

If we are to achieve those standards, we must have a new approach, based on collaboration, partnership and accountability. That is why each local authority, together with local private and voluntary providers, will set up an early years forum to plan—yes, to plan—the provision of local education and child care.

The forum will need to represent all who have an interest in early years education, including employers, health workers and parents. Our plans for early years aim high and are, quite honestly, more far reaching than those of any previous Government, but we can demand no less if we are to do the best for the next generation of children.

To deliver our pledges, we must bring together all the providers, from whatever background, and all the skills and interests that are involved. I want to reassure hon. Members, especially Conservative Members, that no providers from any sector—from the private or the voluntary sector—need fear being squeezed out in our approach to planning early years provision, as long as they offer the quality that we are looking for.

When the early years development plans come to the Department for approval, as happened with the 79 interim early years development plans that we announced on Monday, we will be looking for evidence of that partnership and that consultation. No interim plan was approved that did not make it clear that it involved in its partnership all those providers, in the voluntary and private sectors as well as the public sector, that had been in receipt of what I call voucher-bearing children.

That is a sign of our intent. It is not about squeezing out, but about planning and working together so that we do not have provider competing with provider for a child to come through its doors. I make no apology for planning in that respect; it is in the interests of the children whom we seek to serve.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Bath about some of the four-year-olds in reception classes, but I would not say that it is always wrong for four-year-olds to be in a reception class. We must ensure that their experience there is appropriate to both their age and their stage of development.

I want to approve plans not on the provider's label but on the quality of provision. We would not approve the plans of any local authority that seeks to meet our demand for places for four-year-olds by hoovering them all up into reception classes, regardless of the quality of their education. Early years development plans that offer nothing more than that will be sent back rather than financed. The 79 that I have looked at in the past two weeks did not do so; they reveal a spirit of partnership and the desire to get early years plans right.

Perhaps I should apologise for spending more time on this issue than on others, but, for the first time in our history, we could be about to tackle the real issue that could help our under-eights—I choose that year advisedly because the early years continuum does not stop at the age of five.

There are three things that we should try do. We should try to get the quality of education right for our young children to give them the best start. We should support parents in the difficult task of parenting so that we can renew communities. We should support parents who want to work. If we do those things, we will do an awful lot not just to improve the quality of our education service but to help re-establish the fabric of our communities and meet the hopes and aspirations of many parents for their children and their own working intentions.

Mr. Brady

I have a particular interest in the subject, as the father of a four-year-old daughter and as one of the beneficiaries of the nursery voucher scheme. I thought that it was excellent, as did the other parents who send their children to my daughter's private nursery. I am slightly baffled by the Minister's remarks. If the only plans that are to be approved are those that include the private providers who have been involved in the nursery voucher scheme, can the Minister explain the precise difference between a voucher scheme and a certificate of entitlement scheme?

Ms Morris

It is true that, in the interim plans for this year, we do not want to disrupt children's education.

Those who are in nurseries this term in the private and voluntary sectors on the voucher scheme, as the hon. Gentleman's daughter may be, will be able to continue as such if they are still attending the nursery in the autumn and spring terms.

One of the vagaries of the voucher scheme was the fact that 80 per cent. of children were in maintained provision. Their parents found that they had to give a voucher over for an education which previously they had just turned up at the school to receive. There was no justification for that. For those 80 per cent. in the maintained sector there will be no vouchers, no paperwork, no bureaucracy and no time, money and effort wasted. Within a year, we will be able to make sure that that is true for all children because we will have a development plan in every local authority area.

We accept that we gave local authorities just six weeks to prepare their interim plans. We did not want them to do that badly and to start off on the wrong foot. If there is an interim plan, the problem has been solved because the money will go straight to the voluntary and private-sector providers. In those areas that do not submit an interim plan, and because we want to honour our pledge of continuity of education for four-year-olds, we must have a short-term mechanism to operate until the next year when they have such plans. That will ensure that the money gets to the private and voluntary sectors. That is where the certificate of eligibility comes in; it is a short-term solution to a short-term problem and is not part of our long-term plans.

In the time available, I will be unable to answer all the points that have been raised today, so I will endeavour to respond by letter to those that I fail to mention. A number of hon. Members spoke about the notion of equality. If there is one thing that splits the Conservative and Labour parties—I am sure that the Liberal Democrats are with us, although they might sit on the fence—it is what equality means.

I have never thought that all children are the same, that they will reach the same standard of attainment or that they have the same skills or knowledge, but I have always been opposed to a structure that does not offer them equality of opportunity. That is what we are about. We want to try to create a structure—in this sense structure is important—to make sure that there is equality of opportunity. This country has never managed to achieve that. Historically, we had a structure that gave opportunity to the wealthy, and then one that gave opportunities only to males; it would have ignored me and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton.

When I was at school, in a highly selective system, the structure valued some children more than others by having better qualified teachers in grammar schools than in secondary moderns and by not allowing children who failed at 11 to take examinations at 15. That is a thing of the past, but even in the structure set up by the previous Government, there was unfair funding in the grant-maintained sector and a belief that we needed only some children to succeed to survive as a nation. We want a structure that ensures equality of opportunity for every child, but we acknowledge that every child will achieve to different levels and show different skills and talents.

We received some criticism from the Opposition about targets, which are crucial to the work that we want to do. I go back to a comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking, which was supported by the Liberals. She said that part of the problem in the education system is the complacency of schools that are doing just about all right. They languish in the middle of the league tables; they manage by getting kids through their doors and churning out enough to get reasonable reputations in their communities. We must target our wish for improvement on them as much as on our best and worst schools. The only way to do that is to make schools set targets year on year, so that, each year, they aim to surpass their previous standards. There probably is a limit to the height that a school can reach, but that glass ceiling is always higher than the school thinks. Targets must notch standards up year after year.

Mr. Bercow

We do not tackle the problem of failing to meet targets by levelling down and treading on institutions that are already doing well. Nothing in the Minister's speech so far has allayed my concern about the Government's likely treatment of grant-maintained schools, of which the Minister for School Standards is a long-time sworn enemy. Is there the slightest prospect that she will say something to allay my grievances?

Ms Morris

I shall first continue to discuss targets. I cannot imagine how anyone could have interpreted what I have described as levelling down. It is about notching up. Local education authorities are important in target setting. Schools run, and are responsible for, themselves. They carry the burden of raising standards. The very fact that there are so many complacent schools means that we need a mechanism, a voice over the shoulder to say, "Come on, that target is not good enough."

Schools are setting targets that are too low. We have to make them set higher targets if we are to rock them out of their complacency. The role of a good adviser and of good local authorities is to do that and give schools benchmark information. To answer the hon. Member for Bath, that is why it is important that the information collected by Ofsted is made available to all concerned to notch up expectations. Unless we all, central Government and local authorities, work together to persuade schools that they can do better, we will not make it. The Opposition call that centralisation; we call it harnessing the forces for school improvement. Through our standards and effectiveness unit and the standards task force that is what we seek to do.

I value the standards and effectiveness unit and the standards task force highly because they are not there as a bureaucracy but as a bridge between central policy making and the schools that are delivering the goods to ensure that never again will a Government Department become so removed from the people affected by its decisions. We will form policy by listening to what is said out there. The standards and effectiveness unit has one leg in central Government, but a fair bit of the rest of its body out there with real schools, pupils and teachers.

There are some excellent grant-maintained schools. Long may they continue to be so. There are some excellent local authority schools, but there has been unfair provision in terms of both capital and revenue. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) talked about the problem of admissions caused by people coming over the border into his area.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) was concerned to ensure that his children could attend a school in another local authority area. There are problems involving admissions that need to be addressed. They were caused by the fact that individual schools were allowed to make separate decisions.

I shall address in due course other issues that have been raised in the debate. I thank hon. Members for contributing to the debate, which will be the first of many. Now is the time for us to join in a common agenda of raising standards. If Parliament and politicians do no more than attempt to give each child in every school the best possible education, we will have achieved a fair deal for children, parents and employers.

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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