HC Deb 25 October 2001 vol 373 cc395-7
2. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

By what means her Department will ensure that educational standards are maintained when the private sector is involved in school management. [6687]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris)

Lines of accountability will not change. Local authorities, school governors and head teachers will retain their current responsibilities for school improvement, and Ofsted will continue to inspect. External partners will be subject to an agreement setting clear and demanding performance targets.

Mr. Colman

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will she confirm again that local education authorities that perform well will continue to be responsible for ensuring school improvement and holding schools accountable?

Estelle Morris

Yes, absolutely. I am happy to go further than that and say to my hon. Friend that our best local authorities are needed to support our weaker local authorities. I take the pragmatic view that the education of children is too important to waste and we must use whatever source from whatever sector, as long as it is good quality, to raise standards in our schools. Yesterday I was in Leeds, where an external partner is helping to raise standards. Next week I am going to celebrate the connection between Warwickshire and Doncaster. Warwickshire, which is very strong, has helped Doncaster, which is less strong. In both cases, the Ofsted report shows that progress is being made.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I assure the Secretary of State at the outset of our exchanges that when the Government genuinely promote excellence, discipline and diversity in schools she will receive support from the Opposition, and when they do not we shall want to know why. In that regard, can she clear up the contradictory messages that she sends about using the private sector to drive up standards in some schools? Her White Paper has warm words about this, but her article this month in The Parliamentary Monitor, which presumably is meant to be read by many of her right hon. and hon. Friends, is much less keen on the private sector. Can she tell the House whether she regards the private sector as a last resort, or will she allow it to play a widespread positive role in enhancing standards?

Estelle Morris

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment and look forward to our exchanges across the Dispatch Box. I also congratulate his whole team, in case I do not get the chance to do so later.

We are quite clear that the private sector is not a last resort, but there will be cases when all else has failed and we look to private sector expertise to help us raise standards in schools. For many years now, I have invited pod schools and local authorities voluntarily to seek partnership with the private sector if they think that it is in their interests. There may be cases where individual schools and local authorities seek to do so as a last resort, but in those instances we may call in another public sector partner.

I note the hon. Gentleman's comments about the Opposition's willingness to use the private sector. I remind him and his party that this Government freed up the law to enable schools to use whatever sources they need to raise standards. In 18 years, the Conservatives made no move in that direction. We are guided by very simple principles: what works for children is what we want in our schools. However, there is a clear line of public accountability for the expenditure of public money. Whether we spend that money in the private sector or the public sector, the Government will hold to those clear lines of public accountability.

Mr. Green

The right hon. Lady has not entirely cleared up the contradiction. She said that the private sector was not a last resort and then in the next sentence said that it could be used when all else had failed, which sounds to me like the last resort. So we have to explore that contradiction further. If the right hon. Lady is as keen a,; the last part of her answer suggested, can she explain why, consistently throughout the Government's term of office, Labour local education authorities have blocked the use of this option for improving schools? Indeed, the only place where it has been fully utilised is Conservative Surrey. Does she not agree with me that at a time of teacher shortages, a crisis in school discipline and falling standards in maths among 11-year-olds, a sensible Government would force their party to take any opportunity to help schools in difficulty and not reject one option because of an old-fashioned ideology that still lives on in the Labour party?

Estelle Morris

The hon. Gentleman will do better in his post if he learns to read and listen. I clearly put it on record that the private sector can be used as a last resort, but it will not always be used as a last resort. That is as clear as it gets, and if the hon. Gentleman does not understand that answer I fear for the leadership of the Conservative education team.

Let me take up the hon. Gentleman's point about the performance in maths among 11-year-olds, which is a real success story. I pay tribute to the teachers and classroom assistants and all those who have worked in our schools to bring that about. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to take an approach that damns teachers when they do well and that fails to acknowledge achievement and progress. I am incredibly proud of our key stage 2 results and I wish that the hon. Gentleman were too.

It is quite clear that we will use whatever we can to raise standards. The Government have actively promoted partnerships between schools and local authorities. We have learned from local authorities that get it right. In developing our policy in Whitehall, we listened to what happened in Guildford, Liverpool and elsewhere. I will never apologise for that—for the Government learning from what local authorities and schools do well.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am going to make an appeal. I am trying to get down the Order Paper, so short, sharp questions and answers would be very much appreciated.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

On privatisation, the National Assembly for Wales said in its recent White Paper that it saw real risks in a shift to what it described as untested measures delivered … through the private sector. Does the Secretary of State agree?

Estelle Morris

All I say to that is, "Long live diversity."