HC Deb 08 July 2004 vol 423 cc1011-27 12.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

Today, I am proud to publish the Government's five-year strategy for education and skills and for children's services.

Since 1997, substantial new investment and significant reform have brought education, skills and children's services to the centre of our national life. A powerful alliance now exists for higher standards, embracing parents, our schools, colleges and universities, the voluntary sector, local authorities and employers. Improvements can be seen across the board: nursery education is now available for all three to four-year-olds; our 10-year-olds are among the best readers in the world; specialist schools are producing our best-ever results in secondary education; record numbers of young people are going on to university; and adults at work are gaining new skills.

That progress has reversed years of under-investment and complacency; but more than that, it has lifted expectations in communities all over the country where educational failure had become entrenched. People know that education provides the key to lifelong achievement, and they now believe that it can be for them and for their children. They are right to have those expectations, challenging though they are to all of us in Government. Most parents do not want good schooling to depend on the ability to pay or to be rationed by admissions to selective schools. For many years, a quality education was the prerogative of the few: it must now become the entitlement of all.

Five key principles of reform will underpin our drive for a step change in children's services, education and training: first, greater personalisation and choice, with children, parents and learners centre stage; secondly, opening up services to new and different providers; thirdly, freedom and independence for front-line head teachers and managers, with more secure streamlined funding arrangements; fourthly, a major commitment to staff development, with very high-quality support and training; and fifthly, partnerships with parents, employers, local authorities and voluntary organisations to maximise the life chances of children, young people and adults.

Our five-year strategy is ambitious for children and learners at every stage of life. In the early years, all parents will be able to get one-stop support through children's centres that provide a combination of child care, education, health and advice services, and there will be a flexible system of "educare" that joins up education and childcare to provide 12½ hours of free support a week for three to four-year-olds before they start school, with more choice for parents about when they use it. Local authorities will play a major new role, through children's trusts, in joining up all local services for families and children.

In primary schools, we will continue to drive up standards in reading, writing, numeracy and science, but also to enrich the school curriculum and to give every child the chance to learn a foreign language and to take part in music and competitive sport. We will develop more dawn-to-dusk schools offering child care and after-school activities to help children and busy parents. Those extended schools, as they are called, will combine with early years and with family learning providers to provide a genuine educational centre to every local community.

In secondary education, we will build on the achievements of the past seven years to increase freedoms and independence, accelerate the pace of reform in teaching and learning and extend choice and flexibility in the curriculum. Driving our reform will be a system of independent specialist schools—not a new category of school, but more independence for all schools.

Independence will be within a framework of fair admissions, full accountability and strong partnership. We will never return to a system based on selection of the few and rejection of the many. The strict national requirement for fair admissions will remain and we will not allow any extension of selection by ability.

We will put in place eight key reforms. First, real freedom for schools will come only with secure and predictable funding in the hands of head teachers. Every penny meant for schools must get to them. We will therefore introduce guaranteed three-year budgets for every school from 2006, geared to pupil numbers, with a minimum per pupil increase for every school each year. That dedicated schools budget will be guaranteed by national Government and delivered through local authorities. We will consult in the autumn on the practical arrangements and on ensuring there are no adverse effects for other local government services.

Secondly, we expect all secondary schools to become specialist schools with a centre of excellence. They will now be able to take on a second specialism. Highperforming specialist schools could become training schools or leaders of partnerships.

Thirdly, every school will have a fast-tracked opportunity to move to foundation status, which will give them freedom to own their land and buildings, manage their assets, employ their staff, improve their governing bodies and forge partnerships with outside sponsors.

Fourthly, there will be more places in popular schools. There is no surplus places rule. We already enable popular and successful schools to expand—we have a special capital budget for that. Now we will speed up and simplify the means to do it. There will be more competitions for new schools, which will enable parents' groups and others to open up schools.

Fifthly, a new relationship with schools will be established to cut red tape without abandoning our ambitious targets for school improvement or intervention in failing schools. We will halve the existing inspection burden on schools, with sharper short-notice inspection. Schools will have a single annual review carried out by a school improvement partner—typically, a serving head teacher from a successful school.

Sixthly, in areas where the education service has failed pupils and parents, sometimes for generations, we will provide for 200 independently managed city academies to be open or in the pipeline by 2010. About 60 of those new academies will be in London.

Seventhly, through the "Building Schools for the Future" programme, and a sevenfold increase in the capital budget for schools since 1997, we will refurbish or rebuild every secondary school to 21st century standards in the next 10 to 15 years.

Eighthly, foundation partnerships will enable schools to group together to raise standards and take on wider responsibilities, such as special educational needs or hard-to-place pupils.

Local authorities will play a key part as champions of pupils and parents, setting a strategic vision for services in their area, encouraging and enabling strong partnerships of schools, holding schools to account and intervening where standards are at risk.

In each school, every pupil should have the personalised teaching they need to succeed, backed by excellent training for teachers, a broad and rich curriculum and more sport, clubs, societies and trips. We will continue to crack down on truancy and poor behaviour wherever it occurs, giving new powers to schools and local authorities.

From the age of 14 onwards, there will be a much wider choice of subjects, with better vocational options delivered in close collaboration with employers, and the opportunity to start an apprenticeship at 14. There will be more choice after 16, with high-performing specialist schools opening more sixth forms where there are not enough.

There will be a new framework for the curriculum and qualifications following the Tomlinson review. I appreciate the Conservative party's support in working with us. That will help the reform process. I also appreciate the strong support that the director general of the Confederation of British Industry gave yesterday for working together. That is a positive step.

In the autumn, we will publish a Green Paper on bringing together activities and services for young people. The structure of what is currently offered to young people is too complicated and unclear, and we will tackle that.

For adults developing their skills, there will be free tuition for basic skills and for those going on to level 2 qualifications, which is equivalent to five good GCSEs. There will be a leading role for employers through sector skills councils and a reformed further education sector, rewarding success and closing weak courses and colleges. For those going on to university, there will be grants for students who need them, an end to up-front fees and a fair system for graduates to contribute to the cost of their course. There will be foundation degrees in vocational subjects, designed with and for employers, and world-class research to maintain our leading edge, particularly in science and technology.

This ambitious programme of reform is backed by the further investment announced by the Chancellor in his Budget statement in April. Spending on education will rise by more than £11 billion to £58 billion by 2008 and—through the efficiency review and the 30 per cent. reduction in the Department's main staff—will be focused more than ever on front-line services.

The dividing lines for the future of children and schools are clear: whether we select a few, or raise standards for all; whether there is no role for local authorities, or a new role for local authorities; whether we take funding out of public services, or put it in; whether there is freedom for all, or a free-for-all; and whether some children matter, or every child matters. On this side of the House, we have made our decision: for excellence, for opportunity, for choice, but, importantly, for all.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, not only for his customary courtesy in letting me have early sight of his statement, but for ensuring that every Member of the House could thoroughly familiarise themselves with its contents by reading the papers in recent days.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in which case Conservatives should feel really flattered today. There is much in what the Secretary of State has said that we can and do welcome: making it easier for good schools to expand; putting choice at the heart of the drive to raise standards for all; giving schools new independence; redefining the role of local authorities; and sharply increasing spending on schools. That all sounds rather familiar. Indeed, all of it was lifted from the Conservative policy document that was launched last week. Much of today's announcement is a tribute to the power of the photocopier; it is a product not so much of Blair or Clarke as of Xerox.

We welcome the Secretary of State's renewed commitment to early-years education and the concept of the extended school. A three-year budget for schools, geared to pupil numbers, is getting towards the idea of funding following parental preference, which we also welcome, and I certainly support what the right hon. Gentleman said about our wish to play our part in finding consensus on vocational education, in particular for 14 to 19-year-olds.

The Secretary of State said that parents must have more choice. Does he accept, however, that such a statement is meaningless without a commitment to create more capacity in the system? Why did he say this morning, we haven't got a new places figure"? Why will he not match the Conservative pledge to create 600,000 extra school places to ensure that at least 100,000 additional parents can gain their first choice of school within four years? He also said this morning, we will encourage new providers to come in", but he will not, will he? He will not match our pledge to pay for any child at any school a parent chooses, so long as everyone there is charged the basic state rate, so he is not really offering choice at all, is he?

The Secretary of State says that he wants to create more city academies, which are a rebranding of the Conservatives' city technology colleges. Will he confirm, however, that future waves of city academies will receive far less funding from the state than those being set up at the moment? He says that he wants to create more sixth forms, which is an astonishing statement given that, under this Government, learning and skills councils up and down the country are driving through plans to close existing excellent sixth forms. Will he tell the LSCs to call off their attacks on sixth forms, or is his affection for sixth forms only skin deep?

In his statement, the right hon. Gentleman made great play of saying we will not allow any extension of selection by ability. However, he also said this morning that specialist schools are allowed to select up to 10 per cent. of their children by aptitude". That means that all the schools that he now intends to turn into specialist schools—all secondary schools—will be able to select. Or does he seriously expect us to believe that there is a real difference between selection by ability and selection by aptitude? If selection is such a bad idea, why was the BBC briefed this morning to say that under the Government's plans comprehensive schools will be swept away"? Is not the truth that he wants to be able to tell the middle classes that selection will come back, while telling his Back Benchers that selection will be kept out?

Will the Secretary of State's proposals require primary legislation? If so, when will we see it?

The Secretary of State said this morning that his main theme was that we want to give more independence to schools. Therefore, does he agree with the unnamed Cabinet Minister who told a newspaper this weekend that if you want to say these are like grant-maintained schools, I couldn't disagree"? That is the big idea: new Labour, new grant-maintained schools. They will seek a mandate for a third term promising to do the exact opposite of what they did in their first term. It is not much of an election slogan: "Vote Labour to reverse everything that the dreadful Labour Government have been doing."

Will not teachers and parents recognise that if even Labour now admits that only choice, diversity and deregulation can raise standards, they should have a Government who believe in such ideas in their bones, not in their focus groups? Will not everyone know that the only way to get real choice and a real lift in standards is to vote Conservative?

Mr. Clarke

Let me address those points one by one.

First, on the question of mechanisms and capacity, let me remind the House that this Government are increasing investment in schools and school places by massive numbers. We are building the new schools, we are putting in the places, and we are offering the capacity to take the choice forward, on the back of a position of cuts, cuts, cuts during the Tory years.

Secondly, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has clarified that his policy is to put more money from the state sector into private schools. When that is quantified, which his noble Friend in the other place has done, we realise that between £1 billion and £1.5 billion a year would be taken from state schools and put into private schools.

Thirdly, on future waves of city academies, the commitment is to ensure that city academies reach 21st century world-class standards. It is not a commitment to a particular amount of money—some can be refurbished, some can be built, and that is the position. But they will reach those top-quality standards.

Fourthly, it is completely untrue to suggest, as the hon. Gentleman does, that learning and skills councils are launching an assault on sixth forms, to use his words. Learning and skills councils in every part of the country have a programme to consider what is the best provision locally, to widen choice and to widen opportunities. That is what they are doing.

As I think the hon. Gentleman will know, 94 per cent. of specialist schools offer no selection whatever on aptitude or anything else. The aptitude tests that we are talking about relate to sport, music and such directly related issues. I am glad, however, that he raised the issue of selection as he did. The truth is that that is the dividing line between the parties in the House: we say that there should be a code of admissions and no selection on the basis of ability; the Conservative party says that every school should have the ability to select its pupils with tests, in every circumstance, not only at the age of 11 but at the age of 5. That is a massive difference and the people of the country will know it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about primary legislation. There are aspects of our proposals that require primary legislation, which will be introduced in due course.

Finally, I remind the hon. Gentleman that grant-maintained schools were funded by a national funding agency, which we are not reintroducing—we are funding through local government. Let me remind him that they had beneficial levels of funding compared with everybody else, whereas our specialist schools, city academies, non-specialist schools—all schools—are funded on the same basis, without the discrimination that was established through the Conservatives' system. Therefore, whoever the anonymous Cabinet member was, they were wrong, and I am glad to say that in public. No doubt he can tell me who that individual was.

There is a choice facing the country—it is the choice that I have set out. I hope and believe that the country will vote for progress in the way that I have established.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)

I echo the thanks to the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement and of the five-year plan.

Having spent a lifetime in education, it is very sad that I should respond to a five-year statement by saying that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) has summed it up right: it is Tory policy being delivered by a Labour Government, and I find that absolutely scandalous.

We support much of what is in the mission statement launched by the Secretary of State today and by the Prime Minister yesterday, in his evangelical announcement in Camden. No one could deny that we need to raise standards for all, to eradicate educational failure, to extend educational achievement and to give schools more autonomy and freedom. It is strange to think that two years ago the Secretary of State vetoed a Liberal Democrat amendment to what became the Education Act 2002 that would have given all schools earned autonomy. That has now become standard policy.

We support those objectives. Our differences with the Secretary of State lie in how they are to be achieved. We welcome the move to three-year budgets, which I think will be welcomed by every head teacher in the land, and the sensible change to a budget year beginning in September and ending in August. Why, though, did the Secretary of State not support the idea of an activity-led funding model, particularly for higher schools and particularly for the 14-to-19 phase? We also welcome his commitment to early-years centres. He said that all parents would have access to them, but will he confirm that by the end of the five years 80 per cent. of the poorest boroughs will have no early-years centres? I do not know how he can reconcile that with his commitment.

Few Members would oppose the concept of excellence and opportunity for all, but the Secretary of State's plan seeks not to erase but to widen division. We were told that there would be no selection—that schools would not be allowed to choose students. How on earth can any Secretary of State try to persuade the House and the public from the Front Bench that that can be achieved by giving specialist schools the right to choose 10 per cent. of their pupils, and dancing on the head of a pin when it comes to aptitude and ability? How can it be achieved by allowing 500 new independent specialist schools to select 100 per cent. of their students on the basis of ability or similar criteria, and allowing 200 academies to select for whatever purpose they choose? [HON. MEMBERS: "You got it wrong."] With respect, we got it wrong when Ministers said that there would be education for all. Saying that there will be no selection and then allowing virtually every school in the land to select is an illusion worthy of David Blaine.

We are not concerned about academies or specialist schools. We are concerned about ensuring that children gain access to good local schools that receive state funding. Can the Secretary of State explain how—given the increased plethora of admission arrangements that he has announced—it will be possible to give all children, irrespective of postcode, ability, social class or religion, an equal chance to gain access to the schools of their choice? If he cannot guarantee that, yesterday's claim by the Prime Minister of excellence and opportunity for all was little more than a cruel deception.

The deception does not stop there, however. How can the Secretary of State believe that creaming off £5 billion from the capital budgets of "schools for all" to pay for 20 new academies will do other than provide fewer resources for the rest? Will he confirm that local authority asset management plans are now redundant, and that a deprived community will be able to acquire a new school only if it is an academy? If the 500 new foundation schools all expand with the help of additional capital and revenue, what will happen to the others—the schools that are left with falling roles and fixed costs? How can that give the poorest of our kids the opportunities that they so richly deserve?

This Government came to power promising standards, not structures; but today's statement was all about structures. It contained nothing about standards. Where was there mention of a curriculum in the new five-year arrangement? What is happening to the vocational offer? As for special educational needs, they have been parked out of sight.

The Secretary of State ought to look around the country. He would find that not all schools are like London schools. Many are in rural areas where there is no choice because there is only one school.

This is not a five-year plan. It is an election plan, launched in an attempt to steal the Tories' clothes before the next general election and next week's humiliating by-election results in Leicester and Birmingham.

Mr. Clarke

Out of respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was not going to mention the by-elections, but as he has mentioned them himself, perhaps I will. I was in both Birmingham, Hodge Hill and Leicester on Monday. In both cases specialist schools had been announced last Thursday, and in both cases the Liberal Democrats had opposed those schools from the outset. The Liberal Democrats twist and turn on these issues all the time.

The hon. Gentleman got four things completely and utterly wrong. First, we are not saying that only 20 per cent. of wards in Britain will have children's centres and support for them; he will realise that if he reads the document. We have identified financial priorities, but we intend to provide children's centres for all people throughout the country. That is what we are seeking to do, and that is what we will do.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman was wrong about selection. There is a code of admission for city academies, specialist schools and all other schools, which rules out selection on the basis of ability. It applies to all schools in those circumstances. City academies and specialist schools have mixed-ability intakes, should have mixed-ability intakes, will continue to have mixed-ability intakes and, beyond that, will have a responsibility—set out in this document—to work together to do far better for excluded pupils and pupils with special educational needs than they do at present.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman simply failed to grasp the massive implications of our "Building Schools for the Future" programme. I said in my statement that spending on capital is now seven times as great as it was in 1997. We have a programme, set out in the April Budget statement, to ensure that every secondary school in the country has world-class resources and will continue to do so over the next 10 to 15 years. My hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards has already announced the first wave, and later this year we will announce the second group of local authorities involved. Academies are included in that programme, are working on it, and are a key element in it. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the only way in which a school can secure modernisation and investment is by becoming an academy is completely and utterly wrong.

Fourthly, the hon. Gentleman asserted that none of this was about the curriculum. Next time, I will not make the mistake of giving him a copy of a document in advance. If he had taken the trouble to read this document even at the most elementary level, he would have seen that the curriculum and everything about it is at the centre of our proposals. That applies to enrichment in primary education, to choices for 14 to 19-year-olds in secondary education, and to academic vocational courses. It is central. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is central, but he should not pretend that it is not central for us. We are driving curricular standards up: that is what our programme is all about.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I realise that there is a great deal of interest in the statement, but we have the business statement to come, and the subsequent debate, which is on a highly important matter, has had to be time-limited. I therefore hope that Members will make their questions extremely brief, and that the Secretary of State will respect that in his answers. I should add that, in line with Mr. Speaker's practice, I do not intend to call Members who were not present for the beginning of the statement.

I now call the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, who I hope will get us off to a crisp start.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what was, for me, a clear indication that the Government's obsession with education continues. That gives great pleasure to a Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee. I am reminded of the 1995 commitment of the then leader of the Labour party, now the Prime Minister, to both diversity and an end to selection.

I have one brief point to make about something that concerns me. The three-year commitment to schools will be widely welcomed, but I have a little query about the extent to which the strategic role of local education authorities will be enhanced.

May I end with a short request for information? I have tried to visit every specialist school that selects on the basis of aptitude, and have managed to find only schools specialising in music and the performing arts.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is entirely correct on his last point, and that is a key issue on which his Committee will report shortly. We will study that report very carefully, and I appreciate the work that we have done with the Committee. Local education authorities have a key strategic role to play through the children's trusts, but more importantly through their involvement in the single annual review of every school, so that we can move towards higher standards. The local authority role is enhanced strategically, but the important issue is the budget that we have established for every school.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

Why, in six pages of this statement, is there no mention of discipline? Does the Secretary of State not understand that what is undermining his efforts to bring better standards to many schools is the collapse of discipline in them?

Mr. Clarke

I used the word "behaviour" rather than "discipline", but I did deal with that issue; indeed, the document contains a lengthy passage on it. The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the need for good behaviour and discipline, and the document sets out a number of suggestions on how to address that issue. I shall not repeat them now, but I am happy to discuss them with him further.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)

Given that more than 91 per cent. of parents already get the school of their choice, how will that statistic be increased as a result of today's announcement? More importantly, how will choice be given to poorer parents who do not have their own means of transport?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the overwhelming majority of parents do have choice. However, the areas in which parents do not enjoy choice are not spread evenly throughout the country, and in some areas the level of choice is inadequate, which is why we are investing in them. As my hon. Friend suggests, the level of choice is least in those workingclass areas in which education provision has failed for a number of years. That is why we are investing in them through independent specialist schools and the city academies, and it is to those areas that resources should be directed. Through programmes such as excellence in cities and those that deal with behaviour in schools, we will continue to focus on extending choice in those areas where the level of choice is least.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

Whatever the rights and wrongs of selection, Warwickshire has several very popular grammar schools and, at the same time, a Labour-led local education authority. Unfortunately for the Secretary of State, those grammar schools are among the most popular and successful schools in the county. The Government scheme for funding the expansion of popular and successful schools, to which he referred, rather trivially and unnecessarily specifically excludes grammar schools. Is the scheme that he announced today going to include or exclude grammar schools, or will his plan to encourage the expansion of popular and successful schools specifically exclude the most popular and successful ones of all?

Mr. Clarke

The plan will not exclude them. It focuses on specialist schools, rather than schools that select by choice, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), we will consider what the Select Committee has to say about selection and then decide how to proceed in respect of Warwickshire and elsewhere.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)

There are quite exceptional intake variations between inner-London schools in terms of the proportion of pupils with special needs, the proportion of looked-after children and the proportion receiving free school dinners. What measures are in place to ensure that all schools take a fair proportion of children who present the greatest challenge to the school intake?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this issue, with which two of the measures that I set out today deal. First, the single annual review will ensure that all agencies can work with schools to determine whether they are taking the range of pupils that they need to take. Secondly, we want to establish foundation groups, through which headmasters come together and take responsibility for children in such circumstances. There have been some very positive developments in this regard, and we will work to deal with this issue in a way that meets my hon. Friend's concerns.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

Will the whole of the three-yearly budget for schools, which presumably will increase year on year, be funded by the central formula grant, without taking into account local authority demands for annual increases in council tax, and will local authorities influence the distribution of the grant within their areas?

Mr. Clarke


Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)

Given that my right hon. Friend wants to give parents more choice, and that the state has parental responsibility for looked-after children, what is he going to do to address the fact that 73 per cent. of such children leave school without any educational qualifications? Is it not about time that children in care got access to the very best and most popular schools?

Mr. Clarke

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend and pay tribute to his record in campaigning on this issue. There are some 60,000 looked-after children, and their educational achievement is very poor. I can confirm that we have agreed a public service target to drive up educational standards for such children; indeed, this will be a central theme, as I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck).

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

On the surplus places rule, are local authorities still obliged to do something about a problem that they can no longer realistically control, or is their new role to be the unwelcome undertaker for unlucky schools?

Mr. Clarke

Absolutely the opposite: their new role is to drive up standards in the existing area and to focus on doing so in a proper way. Every local authority, including the hon. Gentleman's own, will have identified areas of educational failure, particular groups who are not getting the education that they need, and subjects that are perhaps not being taught as well as they should. It is the role of the LEA to drive up standards, and the proposals that I have announced today will assist in that regard.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)

Who will decide what constitutes a fair admissions policy? For example, if local parents want their children to go to a specialist and/or foundation school that is single gender and faith-based, will its policy have to be adapted so that it becomes co-educational and takes children with or without any religion?

Mr. Clarke

The short answer is that the Secretary of State decides on such matters by establishing a code of admissions that applies to all schools, including the ones to which my hon. Friend refers. It is a major subject of discussion as to whether the code should make statements on gender, single-sex education, faith schools and so on, and what those statements should be. The Secretary of State will continue to deal with such matters—in contrast with the policy of the Conservatives, who argue that they should be dealt with instead by each individual school.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

Bullet point 4 states, "More places in popular schools. There is no surplus places rule." Is the Secretary of State aware that many parents in my constituency want to send their children to King Edward VII school or to Springwood high school, but are being told that those schools cannot expand so long as there are surplus places in King's Lynn? What are his views on that?

Mr. Clarke

I hope that, in the light of our proposals, the hon. Gentleman will be an enthusiastic supporter of them.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's recognition of the fact that the vast majority of parents do not wish to have their children's access to good schools denied on the ground of a spurious test of ability at the age of 11, and his commitment to a code of practice on school admissions that excludes ability as a criterion for selection. But does he agree that there is a fundamental contradiction between a policy that places parental choice at its heart, and a policy that enables 3,000 secondary schools to become their own admissions authorities, and thereby to establish the oversubscription criterion? Either parents choose the schools or schools choose the children; which is it going to be?

Mr. Clarke

A national code of admissions deals with the point raised by my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to his involvement in this debate over many years, and I know that he was very keen that the Select Committee of which he is a member should conduct the inquiry it is in the process of concluding. I shall certainly look very carefully at its recommendations.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con)

Given the Secretary of State's clear assertion that there is no surplus places rule, will he give an equally clear guarantee now that any oversubscribed school that wants to expand will be able to do so immediately?

Mr. Clarke

I cannot give that absolute assurance for a very simple reason: in deciding what to do, such schools have to take account of the local situation, of other schools in the area, of the adjudicator, and so on. [Interruption.] Of course they do. The idea that they can have an unequivocal right in this regard is simply not correct. The question is: can we achieve more flexibility? We believe that we can.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, by definition, more places in popular schools means more unfilled places in other schools? Does he understand that some of us are concerned about the potential disadvantage of a policy that is based on even more choice? One pupil's choice can be another's half-empty, struggling and inferior school.

Mr. Clarke

I accept that my hon. Friend raises serious issues. When I visited a school in his constituency a few months ago, we discussed that matter. However, I would say that the genie of parental choice cannot—and, in my opinion, should not—be put back in the bottle. The fact is that the exercise of parental choice is an important process and I believe that we need as flexible a system as possible to meet the choice agenda. I acknowledge the fears that my hon. Friend reflects, but I believe that the system that we have established meets them.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD)

How does the Secretary of State expect to meet his very ambitious school building programme when the leading private finance initiative contractor for schools is currently on the brink of bankruptcy? Has he conducted any discussions to establish how massive disruption and cost escalation can be avoided when PFI contracts go belly up?

Mr. Clarke

The issue raised by the hon. Gentleman refers to only one of a series of contractors, and we are keeping a close eye on the situation. The fundamental issue is that the PFI is only part of our overall schools capital programme. Moreover, the performance or otherwise of a particular contractor is not the central theme of the whole capital programme and will not direct it in any particular way.

Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that nationally 10 per cent. of children do not succeed in getting into one of their choices of school. In the Watford area, about 15 per cent. do not get into one of their three choices of preferred schools. What message does my right hon. Friend have for parents—[HON. MEMBERS: "Vote Conservative."] That would make it worse. Can my right hon. Friend assure parents in Watford that this package of ideas will improve their choices and that schools will not be able to continue to act, as they do now, on the basis of partial selection?

Mr. Clarke

I have spoken to my hon. Friend on a number of occasions about the circumstances in her constituency. To illustrate my earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), there are some patches of the country where the problem of lack of choice is more acute than in others—and that certainly applies to Watford where there have been lengthy discussions, as well as legal challenges, between Watford schools and the adjudicator. Gradually, there has been a diminution in the ability of certain schools to admit pupils on the basis of parental choice. I believe that the message that we are sending out, both through the single annual review and the foundation groups of schools, will work in the right direction towards achieving my hon. Friend's objectives. I commit myself to working with her to ensure that the choices of Watford's parents are properly met.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

What is the real difference between allowing city colleges and specialist schools partially to select on the basis of aptitude as opposed to ability? Is not the Secretary of State's language bogus and a sham?

Mr. Clarke

Not at all. First, there is a difference between 10 per cent. and 100 per cent. Secondly, there is a difference between recognising aptitude in music and art in the terms described by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and conducting 11-plus type examinations, which the hon. Gentleman wants to set for all schools. Those are fundamental differences and I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman cannot see them.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend spoke about establishing a framework for strong accountability and fair admissions. What will be the mechanism for strong accountability and how will the national code on admissions ensure a more balanced intake into our schools and an end to admissions by selection or by postcode?

Mr. Clarke

First, through the profile that we have set out, we will ensure that each school is directly accountable to parents in the area. Secondly, local education authorities will be accountable to the public on the strategic issues that will be the subject of a single annual review. Thirdly, I believe that there are ways of intervening to encourage schools to accept people from across the whole range of selection and to work together. I believe that will make a major difference.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

The right hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten our wonderful special schools. Will he give greater encouragement and support to moderate learning difficulty schools such as Cedar Hall school in Thundersley? Inclusion is not right for all MLD children. Parents must have choice: they know best what is right for their children.

Mr. Clarke

Absolutely. We do not ignore the special schools. Indeed, we recently announced that such schools could join the specialist school programme. The key thing is to secure genuine partnerships. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen it happen in his own constituency, but specialist schools are working with special schools in the locality to develop stronger learning arrangements. That partnership will continue.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Of the 200 city academies, how many will be new-build and how many will be re-badged? What is the mechanism for rebadging them and who will run them in the long term?

Mr. Clarke

As each one develops, there will be a development programme, which may include rebuilding and refurbishment. As I said earlier, their objective is to attain world-class standards for the poorest communities in the country that have lacked them in the past. The decision to establish a city academy is a matter for the Secretary of State, but partnerships will be made to make that happen effectively. If my hon. Friend visited city academies—I hope that he will—he would recognise their positive impact in communities where education has been backward looking for many years.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central) (Lab)

The Harris city technology college in Croydon secures better academic results than any other state school, including religious schools, in the area. It allocates places on the basis of a representative range of abilities across the community in nine streams. Does the Secretary of State believe that it would be good to extend that practice to all state-funded schools and, if so, how would he achieve it—by regulations or some other mechanism?

Mr. Clarke

That is one of the ideas that we will consider after the publication of the Select Committee report in a couple of weeks.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

In my right hon. Friend's statement, there were two separate sentences on the roles of local authorities. He elaborated partly on that in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), but can he say how much of the traditional role of local authorities will go?

Mr. Clarke

To answer my hon. Friend candidly, the most important aspect of that traditional role to go is the ability of local authorities to take allocated money from schools. In future, such allocations will be ringfenced. This is a significant issue for local government, as my hon. Friend's question suggests. Those authorities will be able to top up education funding by choice, if they wish, but I have clearly explained the major change. I know that it gives rise to concerns among some of my hon. Friends, but I believe that the gain from allowing schools to run three-year budgets themselves will be a massive one in respect of educational standards. That means that that change is worthwhile.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op)

There are four specialist secondary schools in my constituency, each doing extremely well. Unfortunately, the policy of the Conservative leadership of the local authority has led to serious shortage of school places being made available. Will my right hon. Friend consider how to force incompetent local authorities to ensure that all parents have the right to get their children into school without the stress and anguish, currently suffered by many of my constituents?

Mr. Clarke

Yes, together with my hon. Friend I will pursue the issues about Redbridge that he has raised.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend has set out a dynamic and exciting vision for the future, but if we are to achieve excellence, opportunity and choice for all, do we not have to ensure that the opportunities provided for schools are rooted in the Government's commitment to end child poverty? That will assist the integration of services across the board, particularly across the crucial boundary with health.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has campaigned on that issue for a long time. One aspect of my announcement—I referred to it in my statement but it has received little attention—was a major uplift of everything we do for under-fives in early years provision. We want education, health and social services to work together to provide a strong offer of assistance to individual parents and families. Through the extended school programme for primary schools, we are specifically encouraging joint work with social services and health, which I believe is the key to what I and my hon. Friend want to achieve.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)

I represent 20 highly deprived mining communities where there are low levels of educational attainment. Given the geographic spread of those villages, the poor infrastructure and low car ownership, is not the offer of choice of school a false prospectus? Would it not be better if the four excellent comprehensive schools were properly managed, well funded and provided a full curriculum?

Mr. Clarke

That is true, but let me add a point of view not from a mining community but from rural Norfolk, where there are a number of schools in small villages and towns that educate only up to the age of 16. There is no choice at that point, just as there is no choice in my hon. Friend's area. Those schools are banding together to see if they can jointly offer proper sixth-form provision. I believe that that is the way forward, which is why I commend our proposals for foundation groups of schools to my hon. Friend as they extend choice in a way that we both want.

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab)

If choice is to be available to all parents, it is accepted that we will need spare capacity in our school system. As has been suggested, that will arise in the less popular schools, which will lose per capita funding and risk further decline. Will the radical reform of the school system be accompanied by a radical review of school funding, so that we can ensure that all schools achieve the excellence needed to give all children real choice?

Mr. Clarke

The short answer is yes. I believe that my statement today offers the most radical change to school funding systems for decades. The commitment to three-year budgets enables us to address those questions. I acknowledge that there are issues about managing change in these circumstances, and that is why I came to the view that national funding for education should be through local authorities. They are better able to manage the process of change than the national funding agency that would have been an alternative.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab)

In recent years, standards in all Colne valley schools have risen phenomenally, but they have risen fastest in the poorest community. That is a remarkable achievement. Moor End high school has become Moor End technical college, through the hard work of Steve Morris, the head teacher, and of Molly Walton, the chair of governors. That phenomenal change will need to go further as a result of today's announcement. Will my right hon. Friend look at how we support school governors, on whom we will rely to bring that further change about?

Mr. Clarke

I am glad to say that the phenomenon described by my hon. Friend—of better performance in schools that used to have the worst performance in the past—is not confined her constituency, and it stems from this Government's policies. Today's announcement will accelerate that process and lead to greater fairness. I agree that the governors' role is central. We are exploring a variety of ways to improve the quality of governors, and the training and support available for them. In that way, we can achieve a much stronger position. I believe that the foundation status announcements that I have made today will assist that process.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for helping us to achieve such good progress.