HL Deb 24 October 1994 vol 558 cc406-8

3 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the current number of (a) primary schools and (b) secondary schools in England and Wales; and, in each case, how many of these have grant-maintained status.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, in January this year there were 20,376 primary and 3,846 secondary schools maintained at public expense in England and Wales. I am delighted to say that of those, 397 primary schools and 626 secondary schools are now grant-maintained.

Lord Judd

My Lords, in the spirit of greater moderation and common sense now under the new Secretary of State—which we all welcome—will the noble Lord acknowledge that the evidence is abundantly clear that the overwhelming majority of parents wish to see their children's education supported by local education authorities? Will the noble Lord further agree that it is time for the Government to go back into the dynamic partnership with those local authorities in ensuring the best possible education for our children and to stop pressurising parents and governors to opt out?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we have no interest at all in pressurising parents and governors to opt out, but we have every intention of informing them of their ability to opt out and encouraging them to do so if they wish. However, at all times we shall give primacy to the wishes of parents and governors and will not force anyone into grant-maintained status.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the vast majority of parents whose children attend direct grant schools are absolutely delighted with those schools? They see great advantages in the free education system for their children.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, my noble friend is right. Grant-maintained schools have established a good reputation for themselves and have proved very popular with parents. That I think is a great vindication of our move to offer this alternative to parents and to the schools which serve them.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is it not the case that for grant-maintained schools there is a far higher capitation allowance from the Government than the amount available to local authorities for children in their schools? Where is the even-handedness in that?

Lord Lucas

No, my Lords. Grant-maintained schools receive additional amounts of money to cover the services with which the local education authority no longer provides them. Beyond that, we believe that we treat them even-handedly.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the grant-maintained system has been a great success and has given much satisfaction all over the country?

Lord Lucas

Yes, my Lords. As I said in my initial Answer, we are delighted with the progress that grant-maintained schools have made. Ofsted and other bodies have reported very well on the improvements that are occurring in the schools as a result. We hope and expect that the sector will continue to grow at the pace at which parents wish it to grow.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister tell me how many groups of grant-maintained schools there are since it was made possible under the 1993 Act for schools to join as groups?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am not aware of any such groups at present.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the first five years after comprehensive schools became official Labour Government policy, between 1965 and 1970 only 1,048 schools went comprehensive? However, in the first five years of our grant-maintained initiative, 1,023 schools have become grant maintained. Does my noble friend agree that those figures confirm what he said, that grant-maintained schools are coming on stream satisfactorily? That is, at least when compared with the unfortunate comprehensive experiment, and especially when one considers that grant-maintained schools have to jump the added democratic hurdle of a parental vote, with which comprehensives were not troubled.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that fascinating piece of history. I do not think that I can add anything to the history, but yes, we are quite content with the speed at which grant-maintained schools are coming on stream; and yes, we believe that parents can be trusted to take the decision as to whether or not they should go grant maintained.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is it not the case that when the Government introduced grant-maintained status, they expected and said on many occasions that there would be a rush by schools to obtain what the Government said was an advantageous move? Is it not further the case that the desire for grant-maintained status—and we have had this in the Minister's reply today with those revealing figures—has not materialised? The Government are now saying that it is a matter of giving parents a choice. That may be a good thing, but it is a change of tune. In the circumstances, will the Government now introduce legislation to allow grant-maintained schools to opt back into the LEA system?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, to answer the last question first, no, the Government will not do so. We firmly believe that that would be a foolish thing to do. Schools require to take the move to grant-maintained status seriously and not as something which they can drop out of at a moment's notice. In reply to the noble Lord's earlier question, yes, I believe that in the early days we made some predictions which have not come to fruition. However, that is a danger when one predicts something over which one does not have control. It sounds as though the noble Lord would wish someone who had won £1 million on the pools to be disappointed merely because he had not won £2 million. We are very content with what has been achieved.