HC Deb 12 February 2001 vol 363 cc22-34 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

Well, Mr. Speaker, you cannot win.

With permission, I shall make a statement. I begin by thanking all those who assisted in drawing up the proposals, including my ministerial team. I put on record my appreciation of teachers and non-teaching staff across the country for the work that they are doing, day in, day out, to turn policy proposals into reality in the classroom and beyond.

Four years ago, we promised that we would improve school standards. Last week, the chief inspector of schools confirmed improvements in literacy and numeracy, which have transformed primary schools. Standards are rising fastest in schools where under-achievement was most pronounced, in education action zones and through the excellence in cities programmes. We have seen more than 650 schools successfully removed from special measures. We will deliver our class size pledge ahead of schedule.

We are laying the early foundations, with 120,000 more young children in free nursery places than four years ago. We are committed to universal free nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, and to providing child care places benefiting 1 million children by 2004. We have expanded the sure start programme, and I am pleased to announce that the number of early years excellence centres will be increased to 100.

Our task now is to build on those foundations, to sustain change in primary schools and to transform secondary education. We have made a good start, particularly through excellence in cities, the considerable expansion of specialist schools and our investment in buildings and repair. In partnership with teachers and parents, we need to move further and faster.

Today's Green Paper, "Schools: Building on Success", sets out three key challenges for the future. First, we need to improve standards still further. For primary schools, we are consulting on a new target for achievement at age 11 so that 85 per cent. will gain level 4 in English and maths by 2004 and 35 per cent. will reach level 5. We aim to achieve a step change in performance in early secondary years. We shall set demanding targets for achievement at age 14, building on success in primary schools. Attainment at that age is a key determinant of GCSE performance, and 93 per cent. of those who reach level 6 gain five or more good GCSE grades. That is why we are already taking action.

We have introduced new programmes of teaching with more challenging targets in 200 schools, as well as catch-up provision and tests for 12-year-olds who have fallen behind. From September, we shall extend that programme to all English secondary schools, backed by £82 million of investment in this year alone. We are concentrating renewed attention on secondary schools with low levels of success and, through new pupil learning credits, helping those schools that face the largest economic and social disadvantage.

The second challenge is a new focus on diversity and choice to ensure that the individual talent of pupils is fostered and that their weaknesses are addressed. Through a more diverse curriculum and improved support, we can transform their life chances. The national curriculum remains a basic entitlement, but, in addition, we shall ensure that all children have access to sport and the arts and to teaching on citizenship and democracy. I can announce today our intention that, over time, every primary school child will have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and to experience one of a range of sports. However, we need to do much more to offer real choice.

We shall accelerate pupil achievement with experimental programmes for youngsters, who will take tests at 13 rather than 14, and ensure that there is more early entry for GCSE. I can announce today the establishment of a new centre, which will spread best practice in addressing the needs of gifted and talented pupils. We shall offer a new vocational route, providing choices in work-based as well as full-time practical GCSEs that will lead to apprenticeships for those who would benefit.

The third task is to extend diversity among schools so that every secondary school develops a particular ethos and plays to its strengths and also contributes to the community and the wider education system. We shall double the current number of specialist schools with a new target date of 2003 for the first 1,000, leading to 1,500 schools within five years. Consistency is important. Therefore, I can announce today the creation of advanced specialist schools, which will extend their role to assisting in teacher training and school leadership.

We have already announced the first city academies in inner-city areas. Today, we are proposing new forms of partnership with the voluntary and private sectors to support schools. Beacon schools enable the best of our schools to share best practice with others. I can therefore tell the House that, as well as making 1,000 offers of beacon status by the autumn, we shall also expand the programme to some schools that show excellence in working with their communities.

The Government have been the first to support new voluntary-aided schools for different faiths. We believe that it is important that, where there is parental demand, we support such schools. We recognise that the cost to Church and other faith schools of funding 15 per cent. of capital investment has been considerable, especially with the improved funding from Government. I can today announce that, following discussions with Churches and other faith groups, we intend to reduce that contribution to 10 per cent.

To succeed in reforming standards in schools, we need to recruit and retain good teachers. There are 2,250 more people training to be teachers today than a year ago. That is a direct result of the action we took last year. This year's pay settlement is also an important step, and helps new recruits and experienced teachers in particular. There has been a 12 per cent. increase in applications for teacher training, and more than a twofold increase in inquiries. We need to consider further how we can persuade good graduates to consider teaching, and how we can help them to stay in the profession.

The Green Paper proposes that we consult universities about developing teacher modules in a wide range of undergraduate courses, so that young people get a taste and experience of what teaching has to offer, and some are able to complete the in-school, graduate teaching programme on a fast track. Furthermore, in shortage subjects—maths, English, languages, science and technology—we will assist new teachers by paying off their student loans at one tenth of their debt in each year they remain in teaching in the state sector. During that period, they will not have to repay those loans. That is a substantial new incentive to graduates to come into and to stay in teaching.

The programme that I have announced sets a clear direction for schools over the next five years. It builds on the policies that work. It offers consistency and continuity with modernisation. Teachers will be supported by improved training, and by policies aimed at cutting bureaucracy and addressing teacher work load. That will be backed by increased autonomy for head teachers of successful schools, building on changes in inspection and funding and on the curriculum, and improved pay and conditions for staff. The programme will be underpinned by the substantial increase in investment that we have provided in the day-to-day running of our schools and in the fabric of the buildings.

Our policies are designed to develop the potential of and offer equality to every child, whatever his background and whichever school he attends. We have today moved beyond the old arguments to create a schools system appropriate to the 21st century. I commend the Green Paper to the House.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me prior sight of this statement, and prior knowledge of the content of the Green Paper from The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday People, The Independent on Sunday, the Daily Mail, various other newspapers, the BBC, ITN, Sky, Radio 4, and other broadcast media.

There can be no doubt about what has brought the right hon. Gentleman to the House to make this announcement—panic. The Government have failed to deliver on education, and the Secretary of State knows it. After four years, the Labour Government's education policy is failing, and has been put on special measures.

The Secretary of State knows that, under the Government, class sizes in secondary schools have risen, their targets on exclusions have undermined discipline in classrooms, as confirmed by Ofsted, and they have stifled the energy and enthusiasm of our teachers by burdening them with red tape and paperwork—a directive a day since the beginning of last year.

The Government have presided over a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention that has left schools up and down the country without sufficient staff, and has done serious harm to the education of tens of thousands of children. What is the Government's answer to those problems? This morning the Prime Minister pledged to increase the share of national income spent on education in the next Parliament—exactly the same pledge that he gave before the last Parliament, and the same pledge on which he has failed to deliver in this Parliament.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, over the current Parliament, the Government will have spent an average of 4.6 per cent. of gross domestic product a year on education, compared to the average of 5 per cent. spent by the previous Conservative Government? Will he confirm that this Government have thus failed to deliver their 1997 manifesto commitment to spend a greater proportion of national income on education than did the last Conservative Government? The right hon. Gentleman has not delivered on that pledge; why should we believe him this time?

Now there are more pledges in the Green Paper published today. There is to be diversity in secondary education, businesses are to take over failing schools, head teachers are to be given greater management freedom from local education authorities. Obviously, we welcome the language and rhetoric of many of the proposals in the Green Paper—at least, those that have been cut and pasted from the Conservative party website—but why should we believe the Secretary of State's pledge on diversity, when he abolished grant-maintained schools? Why should we believe his pledge to bring in businesses to run schools, when the Government have failed to provide that in education action zones? Why should we believe his pledge on freedom for head teachers, when he continues to let local education authorities top-slice money from our schools?

We particularly welcome the right hon. Gentleman's acceptance of a principle we have long advocated: that the private sector should be allowed to take over management of some schools. Will he confirm that he has abandoned his previous dogmatic stance, and that private-sector companies will now be able to make a profit running state schools?

Teachers are bogged down by bureaucracy under this Government. Given his words this afternoon, will the Secretary of State apologise to the teaching profession for the lack of trust that he has shown it over the last four years, for the increased work load he has imposed on it, and for the way in which he has driven tens of thousands of teachers out of the profession?

What is new in the Government's package today? It must be the decision this morning that they suddenly favour selection. All those people—some of whom may well be sitting on the Labour Benches now—who watched the Secretary of State's lips at the 1995 Labour party conference, when he said "No selection by examination or interview", will have been startled by today's announcement. On this issue, the Government are guilty of confusion and cowardice.

Specialist schools are able to select 10 per cent. of their pupils; but the Secretary of State tells Radio 4 that they are not selective. And what of the new national academies for gifted and talented children? Will the Secretary of State tell us how pupils will be selected to attend the national academies, if not by examination or interview or on the basis of aptitude?

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister's office, which says that our comprehensive schools today are bog standard? Labour's confusion over selection is obvious. They attack grammar schools, but have brought in selection in the inner cities for the brightest pupils, and will now bring in selection for those who wish to take vocational GCSEs. When will the Government stop their vendetta against grammar schools, and scrap the grammar school ballots?

The Secretary of State has talked today of diversity and choice. Instead, he offers bureaucracy and confusion. What is clear from the details of the statement is that the Government will still be imposing their will on schools. As with the Thunderbirds puppets, the central manipulator will still be obvious.

Will the Secretary of State now accept that the only way in which to provide for the freedoms of which he and the Prime Minister speak is to free our schools from the shackles of local education authorities, provide the whole of the funding for each school directly to the school on the basis of a national formula, and set schools free to decide what is right for their pupils, untrammelled by bureaucratic and politically correct interference from central or local government?

Our schools need to draw out and to develop the talents and abilities of every child and to enable each child to develop his full potential. Our aim is to provide the education that is right for every child, but, for that, we need an education system whose hallmarks are excellence, diversity and choice—a system where schools are free to set their own ethos, to maintain it through their admissions policy and to set and to exert discipline; where they receive the whole of their budget direct and are free to spend it in the interests of their pupils; and where teachers are trusted and free to get on with the job of teaching children and raising standards.

The Green Paper does nothing to provide the freedom that our teachers and schools are crying out for. This is not just a bog standard, but a failing Government: they are failing schools, children, teachers and parents. In the interests of our children's future, they should be removed from office as soon as possible.

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful to the Lady Penelope of the Opposition for the warm welcome that she has given to the raising of standards and to the concentration on pupil improvement. I am also grateful for her many suggestions for improving standards in the most deprived parts of the country—I am terribly sorry that I appeared to miss all that last bit of her speech. Instead, we got a diatribe of dogma about taking money away from special needs, from school transport and from school improvement and simply distributing it through the standard spending assessment process. Let me answer one or two of the things that the hon. Lady did ask me.

We are interested in investing in improvement, not in profit. It was sad that the hon. Lady made no additional suggestions about teacher recruitment, which I have requested from her twice in the House in the past month. She made no suggestions for improving the schools that were left to flounder under the previous Government; nor did she welcome the measures that we are introducing via pupil learning credits. Through that process we will ensure that there is greater freedom for those schools that wish to exercise it, rather than imposing it on them. By that means we can also invest in raising the chances of every child, gifted, talented, or with special needs. Instead of commenting on those proposals, we heard a diatribe about structure, questions about profit and abuse of the work that has been going on to raise standards throughout the country.

The hon. Lady compares the position during the depths of the recession in the early 1990s with that of today. Let us compare what we inherited with the position today. Expenditure on education has increased from 4.7 per cent. of national income to 4.96 per cent. We have every intention of ensuring that that expenditure graph rises, as the Prime Minister spelt out this morning, so that, year on year on year, there will be increased funding for schools, which we have not seen for generations, and which will enable teachers to do their job properly.

Let me take on the central issue raised by the hon. Lady. The present Government have managed to turn around 650 schools that were on special measures and restore them to sound health. That achievement has been far more effective than anything achieved before. The good teaching, good schooling and better results achieved in those schools have been recognised by the past three reports of successive chief inspectors. That is the measure by which we determine our success. The measures that we use are not the criticisms raised by the hon. Lady, but whether the life chances of children are being improved by our policies.

I challenge the hon. Lady and her colleagues to say whether they would spend the extra £82 million this year, whether they would spend the increased amount on performance-related promotion and whether they would continue the standards fund investment, which is directly aiding those schools, through the excellence in cities programmes. That money does not, however, go directly to the schools and is therefore not covered by the so-called pledge—one of the many pledges that last about three weeks—that Conservative Members have made on school spending, not on education spending. If they will not say that they would spend that money on raising standards in our schools, the Opposition—we shall be meeting them at the general election—will be a bunch of hypocrites, preaching one thing while intending to practise another.

As for the hon. Lady's gibe at the start of her oration, I can say only that 1 am very pleased to be able to combine accountability to the public, whom we serve, with accountability to the House—so that everyone knows what we are proposing and is aware of what the Opposition are not proposing.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and the fact that there is a future for education across the country. He is aware that, in mining areas, because of the previous Tory Government's pit closures, we are short of skills and skills training. How will the programme that he has announced today help us to meet the new economy's skills needs, particularly in mining areas?

Mr. Blunkett

The diversity that we are seeking at secondary level will not only build on the heritage and commitment to skills in those areas on which the United Kingdom relied economically and for jobs for 150 years, but redesign and regain the commitment to apprenticeship and vocational skills that has been lost in so many areas. Our combination of diversity, academic education and offering youngsters the ability to choose and choose again, so that they can develop themselves through lifelong learning—it is not a matter of "one chance and you're out"—will give children from the age of 14 the opportunity to sample different life opportunities; the ability to decide at that stage which route they wish to take; and the opportunity to be encouraged and enabled in new modern apprenticeships. That will make it possible for them to gain the types of skills on which their fathers and grandfathers relied.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

The Liberal Democrats sincerely welcome the fact that the Government are putting education at the heart of the next general election. We are also pleased that the Green Paper contains some interesting proposals. We welcome the teaching of sport and music in primary schools, and we certainly welcome more money for extra-curricular activities. We also welcome a review of the 14 to 16-years curriculum, although I ask the Secretary of State to extend that to the 14 to 19-years curriculum. Such a review is urgently needed.

Many of the Government's proposals, however, are muddled, ill thought out and lack reality. Margaret Thatcher was the Secretary of State who introduced the most comprehensive schools in Britain. The current Secretary of State will be remembered as the one who engineered and sounded the death knell of comprehensive education and the introduction of selection. If specialist schools are good enough for four out of 10 schools, why are they not good enough for all of them? Why is the Government's vision so narrow that six out of 10 schools have to comprise a second tier of schools in our system? If specialist schools have to select 10 per cent. of their pupils by aptitude or ability, why have 93 per cent. of existing specialist schools rejected that path? Why does the Secretary of State think that such selection will improve standards? I think that the whole House would like to hear that answer.

We welcome the Secretary of State's admission that there is a crisis not only in teacher recruitment but in teacher retention. However, the type of thinking that holds that money should be provided only for "shortage subjects", without even defining a shortage subject, is very muddled. Religious education is a national curriculum subject, but, in the past 15 years, the full quota of RE teachers—unlike the quota of biology teachers—has never been recruited. However, the debts of students who become biology teachers will be paid, whereas those of students who become RE teachers will not be paid. We therefore need to know how "shortage subject" will be defined and how the Secretary of State will apply the definition in giving those grants.

How will the Secretary of State tell teachers in a staff room—some of whom have had their debts paid off and others not—that we now have an equitable and fair teaching profession? Will he consider the Liberal Democrat proposal of a 100 per cent. training salary for teachers, so that everyone is treated fairly and is guaranteed a job for the first year?

Mr. Blunkett

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the welcome at the beginning of his remarks. I agree that the 14 to 19 age range is important, which is why the beginnings of programmes in the secondary school, pre-16 period will be carried forward post-16. That makes a lot of sense and we are working with further education colleges and others to achieve it.

The hon. Gentleman chides me about comprehensive education. It is important to spell out the fact that under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 specialist schools can choose, by aptitude, up to 10 per cent. of their pupils. Actually, the Act rules out any further selection by examination for all schools that do not already have it. The adjudicator has been taking appeals from parents in relation to those schools that did have partial selection. It is important that, in their coverage, the media understand what the law says and what is happening in schools.

Comprehensive schools, to me, are all-ability but not all the same. They are able to provide for the individual needs of pupils. That was the aspiration of Anthony Crosland, and I pay tribute to Susan Crosland, who confirmed that on "The World at One" on Radio 4 today. She welcomed our proposals, which she said were in line with her husband's original intentions in putting forward a system that had diversity, that played to the strengths of pupils and the schools and that did not allow for simple sameness.

I spelled out the specialisms where there are the greatest shortages at the moment. They are the ones, plus English, that have already had the golden hellos. The hon. Gentleman asked what people in a staff room will think when they find that some teachers in shortage subjects have had a golden hello for taking up teaching. I will tell him: they will think what a relief it is that they now have teachers to fill vacancies, lift the work load, teach the children and pick up the specialisms that were in short supply. That is why we are doing it.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

I welcome the sensible and non-dogmatic approach to delegating more autonomy to schools. In that respect, will my right hon. Friend say what steps are being taken to reduce the administrative and form-filling burden on teachers, started by the Conservative party?

Mr. Blunkett

Apart from completely revising the standards fund formula in terms of its allocation and monitoring, we have reduced the paperwork and administration by two thirds in secondary schools, and by 40 per cent. in primary schools last term. The latter figure was a result of our sending the schools a grammar guide, and I just wish that Opposition parties would follow through their logic. If we are to improve standards and teach phonics, spelling and decent grammar, we must do something about it besides eulogising. We are also putting in place a major reduction in data collection. We will reduce the amount that is asked of schools by other authorities, such as education authorities, Ofsted and the like. We will make sure that the monitoring panel that we have established in the Department does its job of telling us what is and what is not acceptable in schools.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

If the majority of secondary schools specialise and a minority do not, will it not be time for the Secretary of State to give up the pretence that he is running a comprehensive system? Could he say whether pupils in the remaining non-specialist schools are still entitled to opportunity for all?

Mr. Blunkett

We have specialist schools and beacon schools, which, incidentally, also have resources to use in spreading best practice. The new community beacons that I announced today will be a part of that.

We have schools where there are variations and which develop, because of the expertise of particular teachers, an ability to deliver to special needs pupils. Teachers with a particular talent offer after-school and lunchtime programmes in languages such as Greek, and spread those programmes between schools.

A comprehensive system, in my book, does not have some good schools in some leafy suburbs and second-rate schools in other areas served by those who have always had the lousiest deal. It has decent schools for every child, so that those living in the leafy suburbs might, just for once, want to send their children across cities, across boroughs and out of the immediate neighbourhood into schools that have improved so dramatically and have specialisms so attractive that no parent in their right mind would want to eschew them.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

I warmly welcome the extra boost announced today for teacher recruitment and retention. However, will my right hon. Friend say a little more about how he intends to help students already on BEd courses who, as he will be aware, feel that they have missed out on the very generous help being given for postgraduate one-year courses and who are looking for a bit of help from this?

Mr. Blunkett

If my hon. Friend looks at paragraph 12 of chapter 5, he will see listed a range of ways in which we might be able to help BEd and BA students who are taking undergraduate courses in education. The options on which I want to consult involve being able to pay students in their fourth year of a four-year course, reaching a point when they might be able to take up the induction year and therefore gain qualified teacher status. We are also looking at students taking up the equivalent of the graduate teacher programme in the fourth year, or taking sufficient modules during the four-year course to have reached the point in the fourth year at which they can take up QT status automatically—apologies to the Gallery, if anyone is still listening, for the jargon.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

They have all gone.

Mr. Blunkett

I am not surprised, considering the questions that we have heard from Conservative Members.

We shall combine the above measures with encouraging undergraduates on other courses to sample and enjoy teaching, including taking up paid work as teaching assistants, should the semester and the school term coincide sufficiently well.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the Secretary of State realise that much of what he has been doing recently has done nothing for the specialisation of schools in the countryside? I have a letter signed by the right hon. Gentleman, dated just over two weeks ago, in which he praises the additional £52 million for the SAS—[Interruption]—I mean the SSA for the counties. Devon, which is one of the largest counties in the country, gets less than £100,000 out of that £52 million, with £150,000 going to the whole of the west country. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the extra money for the neighbourhood renewal fund being brilliant for Devon. Plymouth—a Labour area—gets £1 million, but there is nothing for Devon and the countryside. This is the Labour party looking after its own, not the countryside.

Mr. Blunkett

I do not know about the SAS, but I know a bit about the SSA. We all agree that it needed revising a long time ago and we will do something about it.

I do not want to be ungenerous to the right hon. Gentleman, but in fact Plymouth is not under Labour control, regrettably. We lost it at the last local elections. [Interruption.] I heard the right hon. Gentleman say Plymouth; I am terribly sorry if I misheard him. [HON. MEMBERS: "He did say Plymouth."]

Let me put the record straight. This was additional money, on top of the revenue support grant, the standards fund, the building programmes that have been allocated and the nursery education provision for that county and others. The money was provided from Department for Education and Employment resources that we identified, based on the distribution and top-slicing of adult education money and the ability of authorities to reach and deliver their standards agenda.

I am terribly sorry that I could not do more than I did a fortnight ago, but I will continue to do my best to ensure that the schools in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency receive the special grant that they never had when his party were in office.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement for its response to the fact that vocational and technical education has been downgraded for too long? As a result, engineering careers, for example, have been difficult to promote positively to young people. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that vocational GCSEs and work-related learning opportunities will become a central part of the education system? Along with closer links between schools and industry, that will ensure that places such as Lincoln receive the bright and talented people whom we need to work in engineering.

Mr. Blunkett

I certainly can. That is why the specialist school programme is being expanded to science, engineering and business and enterprise. I pay tribute to the contribution that business and commerce have made both in kind and in support for and direct links with schools. It was disgraceful that the shadow Secretary of State was so disparaging about the efforts made. What a funny twist that was, and what a changed world we live in. I assure my hon. Friend that the work will continue and that the 14-plus programme, helped by the change in the law that we brought about in 1998, will facilitate it.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Most of the Secretary of State's statement applies, of course, to England alone, but one area—the relief of repayment of student loans for teachers—has considerable scope for cross-border confusion. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the position of those in teacher training colleges in Wales who then teach in England, and of those from teacher training colleges in England who go to teach in Wales? Has some understanding been reached with the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in Cardiff, Jane Davidson; and can the Secretary of State clarify the situation?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, I am happy to do so. The cost will be met from central funds, not by the Welsh Assembly, and that will facilitate decision making for the young people to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that many parents in inner urban areas are strongly committed to the principle of universal comprehensive education? Many inner London boroughs have a serious problem because the remaining grammar schools and selective schools in outer London diminish the number of able children who go to inner city schools. Will my right hon. Friend renew his commitment to comprehensive education? Instead of promoting the idea of 10 per cent. selectivity in specialist schools, will he reduce selectivity so that we end up with the universal comprehensive system that would be the best possible support for inner city schools?

Mr. Blunkett

I thought that I had already done that. The introduction to the Green Paper calls for embracing without reservation the principles of inclusion and equality of opportunity on which comprehensives were founded". I repeat that this afternoon. We have every intention of ensuring that where parents want change, they can use the adjudicator system to trigger it. In the case of selective schools using the old 11-plus, parents will have the opportunity to do that too. The main task that I set myself four years ago was to transform the schools, in which too many children found themselves, that were called comprehensive, but were comprehensive in name only.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

In reflecting on his four years, the Secretary of State will have noted the answer given to the House a few weeks ago by the Minister for School Standards on allocations to local authorities. Can he tell us why Sheffield and Derby receive £2,500 for a primary pupil, but the county of Derbyshire receives only £2,300? Do the allocations have anything to do with who the Cabinet Ministers are?

Mr. Blunkett

If that did have anything to do with Cabinet Ministers, it would relate to the previous Government's Cabinet, not the present Government's. The system used for distribution of revenue support grant is the system that we inherited. We have done our best to ensure, through the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, that the system is put right. Direct funding to schools, the standards fund, the new funds for nursery provision and the funds allocated for building programmes make matters not worse, but better. Had we put those resources directly into the SSAs, Derbyshire's relative position would have been a great deal worse.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

What assessment has been made of the excellence in cities project and of its effect on increasing standards? Will he confirm that the education SSA system will be reviewed and changed next year?

Mr. Blunkett

On my hon. Friend's second question, which picks up on the one put by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), our Green Paper was issued last year and we have been holding consultations on it. By the summer, we shall be making decisions on a revised system of SSA distribution.

There has been a dramatic improvement in schools in excellence in cities areas; the youth cohort study showed improvements of 10 per cent. for youngsters from black and Asian households and of 7 per cent. for those from white, working-class households, as compared with the rest of the country.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to expand Church schools. Bishop Ramsey Church of England school in my constituency is excellent. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, in outer London, which he classifies as the leafy suburbs, there are considerable problems in the exercise of the real choice to which he pays lip service and makes obeisance? Will he do something to make certain that parents in my constituency really have the chance to get their child into the school of their choice? The fact is that not only the Church schools, but the foundation schools, are so good that local children are being flooded out by an inflow from across the borough boundaries.

Mr. Blunkett

I inherited a difficult problem: the inability of parents to get a place for their children at the schools closest to where they live. Sometimes that was because of selection; sometimes it was because of inherited admissions decisions. That is why we introduced a revised code, and set up independent tribunals so that parents could appeal to an external arbiter. That is why we expanded schools—especially in the infant and primary range—to ensure that more parents obtained their choice. Improving the quality of education is the only answer, if we are not to squeeze out those who do not know the ropes, who do not have a loud enough voice or who have not been able to use the admissions system to get their children into the school of their choice.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for his proposed expansion of specialist schools, in whose number I hope that the Blackpool Collegiate high school—currently preparing a bid for sports college status—may be included. What resources does my right hon. Friend think he may be able to allocate to non-specialist secondary schools, so that subjects such as history, geography and citizenship, all of which need promotion, receive the right resources, so as to enable the expression of diversity of choice across the whole sector?

Mr. Blunkett

That will be done by ensuring that, first, should the Collegiate school obtain sports status, it can share it with neighbouring schools, to increase the excellence of the athletes and gymnasts of Blackpool who will welcome us to a triumphant party conference in a couple of years. Secondly, the programmes that we have set in train—the excellence clusters that are reaching out to other parts of the country—will ensure that the resources for learning support units, for mentors and for the programme for gifted and talented children will be extended in the way that I want. I hope that whoever is in my job in a few years will have been able to ensure that those measures and that investment—over and above the amount that schools would have received and thus vulnerable to the election of a Tory Government—have been put in place.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I would be among the first to welcome the greater diversity offered by specialist schools—I welcome the increase in their number—but the reality is that, increasingly, parents can send their children only to the local school. Their offspring may be budding sports stars, but they might be stuck in an area where the specialist school is one for languages—excellent though that may be. Are we not introducing a postcode lottery for education?

Mr. Blunkett

No, we clearly are not, but I understand that the Liberal Democrats are committed to reversing the Greenwich judgment.

Mr. Willis

Hear, hear.

Mr. Blunkett

The Liberal Democrat spokesman agrees in his usual cheerful way. However, if the Greenwich judgment were overturned, people would be confined within their postcode areas and they would not have the choice to move across the boundaries.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

Given that comprehensive schools have played a major part in raising standards of pupil achievement in the past 30 years, and although I recognise that we can do even better, may I urge my right hon. Friend to give particular encouragement to comprehensive schools serving the most deprived inner city communities to seek specialist status where they wish to do so?

Mr. Blunkett

The answer is an unequivocal yes. Under the excellence in cities initiative, we have deliberately supported and worked with schools to do that. My intention has always been that city academies and specialist schools should be targeted and resources provided precisely to lift the standing, the status and the achievement of the schools that need that particular boost; they can then share it with their communities.

Mr. Fabricant

I welcome those statements, which come straight from Conservative party policy—even though they were delayed because of the dreadful activities of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) on Thursday—but what can the Secretary of State do to make people in Staffordshire believe that anything he says now is not a promise today and no jam at all tomorrow? A promise was made in 1997 that the Government would spend more money per capita as a proportion of GDP on education—they have not. They made promises in 1997 to raise the SSA in Staffordshire within a year of forming a Labour Government; we still languish second from bottom.

Mr. Blunkett

There has been a £300 increase in per pupil funding—£700 by the end of the spending review period—and the commitment to increase the amount spent on Staffordshire's schools has been met, ensuring that the buildings are repaired, that technology is installed and that teachers are better paid.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

The Secretary of State has referred to comprehensive schools that, in practice, are not comprehensive. I wonder what the statement offers to areas such as mine, where we have so-called comprehensive schools and an 11-plus exam? We have four grammar schools and five secondary schools. How will the Green Paper provide extra opportunities and diversity in places that still retain selection?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, in the Green Paper is a proposal, which I want to exemplify in the weeks ahead, to provide substantial additional resources for schools in such circumstances that are prepared to co-operate in sharing staff and facilities and in facilitating the integration of their pupils. In that way we can encourage the schools that have a traditional selection process at 11 to give all children the life chance that they are denied if they are excluded from excellence by an examination at one point in their lives.