HL Deb 27 April 1993 vol 545 cc139-41

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many primary schools and secondary schools have been given grant-maintained status, how many in each category are now being considered and what is the total number of schools eligible for grant-maintained status.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, there are 18,296 maintained primary schools and 3,847 maintained secondary schools in England. Of those, 116 primary and 406 secondary schools have been approved for self-governing status. Applications from 71 primary schools and 97 secondary schools are under consideration.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, when the Government introduced the policy did they expect that there would be a 100 per cent. take-up of opting out? If not, what percentage of opt-outs was expected? Is it not now obvious, especially in the light of the figures that we have just been given, that there is no great enthusiasm for the scheme? Will the Government therefore do two things? Will they make provision for those schools which have opted out to opt back in if they so wish; and, secondly, will they drop the proposal which is now before this place in the Education Bill, which compels governing bodies to consider at least once a year having a ballot to opt out?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord is hostile to the idea of grant-maintained status. If he believes his own rhetoric, he will have nothing to fear because the growing number of schools that we know are interested in grant-maintained status will not proceed with applications. However, there is a growing number of schools wishing to seek grant-maintained status. It is a voluntary principle. We are neither pressing schools to seek it nor preventing them from doing so. It 'is an enabling part of the Bill, and we shall retain it. However, I have to say to the whole House that, as we have spent two very long days and shall be spending most of the rest of today and part of tomorrow discussing the Bill, I am disappointed that this Question should be down on the Order Paper in this way today.

Lord Judd

My Lords, will the Minister help the House by telling it what percentage of primary schools and secondary schools in England and Wales have now opted out? Will she also enlighten the House about how the Government see the future of education on a opting-out basis in terms of its implication for the whole character and quality of local democracy?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I gave the noble Lord all the figures, and I have no doubt that he can work out the percentages for himself. As for the policy, it is voluntary. If schools wish to opt out, our only concern is that they should be good schools. If they choose to remain with the LEA our equal concern is that they should be good schools. That is all there is to the policy.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, does the Minister accept that my noble friend will have tabled the Question before he realised that today would be the day for discussing the Education Bill? Will she answer his second question, which was: what about this one-way ratchet? Will it be made possible for schools which want to opt back in to do so? After all, there will be a new set of parents in three or four years' time. If those parents want to opt back in, will it be possible for them to do so?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, on the first point made by the noble Baroness, I believe that not to be the case. This Question was not down when we first knew the Committee dates of the Bill. Secondly, the noble Lord referred to this issue during the course of discussion on the Bill. When he asked the Question he knew that in something like one or two hours' time we should be discussing the very point that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord have posed. I am a democrat. I shall wait and listen to the debate.

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, will the Minister display her democracy by answering my noble friend's question? Why do we have a single ratchet in this case? If she is so in favour of choice, why cannot choice go both ways?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the amendment which will be dealt with second this afternoon addresses precisely that question. There will be free and, I suspect, full and frank exchanges of views all around the Committee discussing that question in all its aspects. I prefer to wait for the will of the Committee to be expressed.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister misunderstood my noble friend's question, which did not refer to the amendment but to the Question that I have asked today. Be that as it may, I presume that this is a free House where we can ask questions if we wish. Does the Minister agree that, because it is so difficult to get a straight answer from the Government, it is not a bad idea to keep pressing the issue? Secondly, is the Minister prepared to listen to the debate this afternoon when she will find my speech so compelling that she will change her mind today?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it has never been my style not to answer a straight question but we are only a matter of hours from debating this very matter. The noble Lord knew that a week ago and that is important. In terms of priorities, I suspect that a large number of important Questions which are waiting to be tabled could have used this slot during Question Time more profitably.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us are puzzled by her attitude towards the Question? She is right, is she not, that we shall have a debate? However, is it not possible that, because of the answers which the Minister has given today, many more Members will wish to speak in the debate? Therefore, does that not make the Question valuable indeed?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I hope that the House will be understanding. The debate on the issue will range far and wide and I shall not give a one-line answer to what I believe to be an important question which needs to be properly addressed in a democratic way. Giving simplistic one-line answers is no way to treat a serious amendment which will be debated in this Chamber later today.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many more people will have heard her arguments during Question Time today?

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