HC Deb 22 October 1998 vol 317 cc1379-81
2. Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

If he will make a statement on the first 25 education action zones and on his plans for the next round of bids. [55091]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

The first 12 education action zones started on 1 September and 13 more begin on 1 January. I expect to invite applications for more zones in the new year.

Mr. Caplin

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Is she aware that, during the recess, the Conservative party said that it had left us a golden education legacy? If that were the case, presumably the private sector would have been involved in partnerships in education for some years before we came to power. Clearly, that is not the case. Is not the partnership between the private and public sectors crucial to the long-term stability and economy of this country and to its education, which is why education action zones are an important way forward for education authorities?

Ms Morris

My hon. Friend is right. There was no golden legacy in education—try telling the four out of 10 eleven-year-olds who were not even taught to read and write and use numbers effectively, and their parents, that there was. We shall change that. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of partnerships. One positive aspect of education action zones is the willingness with which industry, commerce and other partners have joined with schools, pupils and governors to raise standards for children. That is not just in the interests of schools—every person in this country has a vested interest in getting education right. The partnership being built in education action zones is one symbol of that.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Does the Minister agree that, if the Government adopted a less ambivalent attitude to the participation of private companies in education action zones, companies would be more positive about joining in and less scared of participating?

Ms Morris

The hon. Lady refers to an ambivalent attitude—perhaps that is better than no attitude, which is what we had from the previous Government. I do not know what information the hon. Lady has read. BT, American Express and KPMG are partners in the action zone to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) referred. Kelloggs, American Express and Arthur Andersen are all top-rate companies which are joining with local companies to work with education action zones. People from industry are chairing education action zones and industry is represented on every single action zone forum. We are getting the partnership right, because it is not just words—there is action out there, and that partnership in action will raise standards. There is much to do because of the mess that the previous Government left us.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I thank my hon. Friend for establishing an education action zone in Halifax and for recognising the problems that we faced. Will she join me in congratulating Anna White, her teachers, the governors, the local education authority and, most of all, the children for—in the words of Ofsted—having transformed the Ridings? I also pay tribute to the Secretary of State, who has shown such special interest in this school.

Ms Morris

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has given me the opportunity to welcome the education action zone in Halifax, which will build on what has gone on at the Ridings. Yesterday was a good news day for education and for the Ridings school, and not only because of what has happened there and because the life chances of a generation of children in Halifax will be better as a result of the work that has been done in the past few years. Perhaps even more important than that, it was a good day because of the lesson it teaches us—that any school can be turned round with good leadership, good teaching, and strong partnership involving Government and local authorities.

I wish to add my thanks, and the thanks of Ministers, to Anna White for the work that she has done. She deserves to be congratulated, and she will teach others to lead schools in equally good ways. I join my hon. Friend in her thanks to others, but I should also like to thank my hon. Friend, who has been assiduous in arguing on behalf of the schools in Halifax. She has driven the matter forward, and I am sure that she took some pleasure in yesterday's announcement.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

I begin by congratulating the Minister on her promotion. I believe that this is her first appearance in the House since she became Minister of State and I shall mention it even if her Back-Bench colleagues do not. Will she clarify what the waffle about partnership with the private sector means? Does she agree that, both in education action zones and councils such as Surrey or Hackney, it is acceptable for private firms to make a profit from contracts to run state schools if it is in the interests of pupils? If she gives a clear yes, she can be assured of Opposition support, but we need a clear answer to a simple question. Can private companies make money from running state schools, yes or no?

Ms Morris

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, but he somewhat spoilt it after that. He may call it waffle, but when some of the nation's top companies go into schools, mentor children, offer learning opportunities and put in business expertise and resources, I would call it not waffle but giving our children better opportunities to achieve at a higher level. We are in favour of partnership. Schools and local authorities have always bought services from the private sector and some of those have included management consultancy. That is happening in one school in Hackney and it is being considered in Guildford—the authorities there will come to us when they have worked out their plans. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that buying services in the private sector does not amount to schools going private; it is not a change in the status of the schools. I very much regret that his present attitude to industry seems to be to question constantly and to undermine its efforts to enter partnerships with schools. He should put first not political point scoring but the interests of schools and children

Yvette Cooper (Pontefract and Castleford)

Will my hon. Friend consider broadening the focus of future education action zones? In Castleford, the number of children getting five or more A to C GCSEs is 14 per cent. below the national average and the number staying on beyond 16 is a massive 40 per cent. below. Will she consider bids from places such as Castleford which concentrate on staying-on rates as well as raising standards?

Ms Morris

I apologise profusely to my hon. Friend for that. She is right and we shall certainly consider education action zones that decide on that as one of their targets. Continuing in education has never been as important for any generation as it is for this one, whether it be for academic or vocational courses. If children do not continue in education, they will miss out on the opportunities at the end of this century and the start of the next. I would very much welcome it if the area to which she referred and others made that one of their targets.