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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 May 1992

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Queen's Speech (Answer to Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows :

I have received with great satisfaction the loyal and dutiful expression of your thanks for the Speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.


British Waterways Bill


Alliance and Leicester (Girobank) Bill

(By Order) Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday.

Pittenweem Harbour Order Confirmation Bill

Considered ; to be read the Third time tomorrow.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Grant-maintained Schools

1. Mr. Ashton : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what changes he intends to make in regard to the opting-out procedures for schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Eric Forth) : The current arrangement by which schools apply to the Secretary of State for grant-maintained status following a favourable ballot of parents is proving very successful. We have no plans to change it. The latest approval of Chatham grammar school for girls brings the total of grant-maintained schools to 250. The rate of GM applications has doubled since the general election.

Mr. Ashton : If the arrangement has been so successful, why have only 1 per cent. of schools in Britain applied? Four years ago, Mrs. Thatcher said that by now 50 per cent. of schools in Britain would have opted out. Why have only 1 per cent. done so? Have there not been serious problems at opted-out schools in Stratford, with allegations of racism? Is it not a fact that the Catholic bishops are not happy about the random selections? Is it not also a fact that governors in some of those schools have far too many powers which they have abused? The whole system has become a flop.

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman must contain his impatience. Although 10 per cent. of secondary schools have applied for grant-maintained status, we are in the early stages of an exciting departure in our education policy and in the history of education in this country. If there are any difficulties in GM applications, they have probably arisen because sour and negative Labour-controlled local authorities have placed every possible obstacle in the way of schools trying to get out from under them and deliver a proper quality of education to their pupils. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is, "Watch this space."

Sir Rhodes Boyson : Does my hon. Friend agree that the difference between Conservatives and the Opposition is that we believe in parents and families being allowed to choose schools while they believe in bureaucrats?

Mr. Forth : My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The key difference is that we truly believe that we must correctly look to parents and governors for care and concern for children's education. The recent history of education has shown that many local education authorities have neither the will nor the capability to give our children a proper education. That is what grant-maintained status brings. That is the promise for the future.

Mr. Enright : Why have the Catholic bishops in their Low week meeting continued their opposition to opting out? Will the Minister give special consideration to Catholic schools in that respect?

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman is not quite correct in a very important sense. As they are entitled to, the

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Catholic bishops are asking searching questions about the nature of our policies and the direction in which we wish to go. However, there is no one better placed than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to commune with the Catholic bishops to satisfy them about the direction in which we are going and to ensure that we all move forward in the way that we want and on the basis of our election manifesto. I promise the hon. Gentleman that.

Mr. Dunn : Does my hon. Friend accept that we on the Conservative Benches fully support the procedures for achieving grant-maintained status? Indeed, we go further and support the grammar schools, the city technology colleges, the assisted places scheme, the Church schools and anything that maximises parental choice. That is in direct contrast to the socialist Opposition parties.

Mr. Forth : My right hon. and hon. Friends and I fought the recent election campaign on the basis of very clear and explicit undertakings about the future of education. Our election victory endorses that view. It is sad but predictable that Opposition Members still cannot accept that and that they even now seem to want to resist the inevitability and the desirability of the movement towards grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Straw : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment. He referred to searching questions asked by the Catholic bishops. When will he give some straight answers to those searching questions, in particular the question about when the current level of bribes--what the Government call preferential funding--of opted-out schools will end?

Mr. Forth : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will write to the Catholic bishops within the next few days. The bishops asked the questions of my right hon. Friend and it is to them that he will give the reply. As to the rest of the questions that no doubt are burning in the hon. Gentleman's mind, our White Paper, which will be published in July, will answer them all and will, I am sure, satisfy him completely.

2. Mr. Ian Bruce : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many Dorset schools have now opted for direct funding by his Department.

Mr. Forth : I am pleased to report that there are six grant- maintained schools in Dorset.

Mr. Bruce : Does my hon. Friend realise that, although we talk about only 10 per cent. of schools having applied for

grant-maintained status, the other 90 per cent.--and in fact all the schools in my constituency--that have not applied for grant-maintained status now have a tool that they can use to go to the education committee and say, "Please give me what I need for my school through the education authority, or I will opt for grant-maintained status"? Therefore, 100 per cent. of schools now have far more control over their finances than was the case before that excellent policy was in place.

Mr. Forth : I thank my hon. Friend for the spirit of his question. He has emphasised a key point. It is now for parents and governors in each school to look at how they want their school to develop. If they are persuaded that grant-maintained status is the future, it is for them to demonstrate that through the balloting procedure and then to present their proposals to my right hon. Friend the

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Secretary of State. He will obviously want to consider each case on its merits, but he will look positively at the applications.

Special Educational Needs

3. Sir John Hannam : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps he is taking to ensure that young people with special educational needs beyond the age of 19 years are provided with continuity of provision.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Nigel Forman) : The further education funding councils and local educationauthorities will have the duty, under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, to ensure that appropriate special needs provision is made in further education for all age groups including adult students.

Sir John Hannam : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and thank him for that answer. Is he aware that, although there is a statutory duty on local authorities to ensure that handicapped students get the necessary education past the age of 19, many local authorities, including mine in Devon, are not providing that funding for those students? Will my hon. Friend examine that matter and ensure that that statutory responsibility, which was clearly enunciated in his answer, is carried into effect?

Mr. Forman : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind opening remarks. As chairman of the all-party disablement group, he will know that the issue he raises is essentially a matter for local education authorities and, in future, for funding councils. The Government believe that disabilities should not be a barrier to access to further education. The duties under the Act are quite clear, in that they carry forward earlier duties which were enshrined in the Education Act 1944. I shall certainly look carefully at my hon. Friend's important points.

Grant-maintained Schools

4. Mr. Paice : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many applications for grant-maintained status he has received since 10 April.

6. Mr. Don Foster : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will set out the Government's long-term plans for the expansion of the grant-maintained schools sector.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : Thirteen schools have applied for grant-maintained status since 10 April, about twice the number of applications receive the month before. The number of grant-maintained approvals reached 250 today, as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) announced earlier this afternoon, including 24 approvals since 10 April. I expect the number to continue to rise as more and more parents seek the clear advantages of grant-maintained status for their schools. The rate of growth will continue to be decided by parental wishes in school ballots. In time, I expect grant-maintained status to become the natural organisational model, particularly for secondary education throughout England.

Mr. Paice : I welcome my right hon. Friend to his long-overdue appointment to the Cabinet and to his

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responsibility for this important policy area. As grant-maintained status becomes the norm for schools throughout Britain during this Parliament, will he make it absolutely clear that while it is perfectly valid and, indeed, desirable for schools to form consortia after they have become grant maintained, he will not accept applications from great swards of schools trying to become a consortium before the fact and to become some form of

self-perpetuating local education authority?

Mr. Patten : I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Although I understand that there may be distinct advantages in some schools--for example, a secondary school with several feeder primary schools--opting out together to achieve better management, I am simply not prepared to countenance the recreation by the back door of old-style, obstructive local education authorities.

Mr. Foster : I am sure that the Secretary of State is well aware of anxiety throughout the country about the large number of educational changes that have taken place in recent years and the lack of consultation about them. Will he give us an assurance that there will be adequate time for consultation on the new legislation that he proposes? Furthermore, will he give an assurance that consultation will not take place mainly during the school holidays?

Mr. Patten : In due course I shall publish a White Paper. In the meantime, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give full and whole-hearted support to the two excellent grant-maintained schools in his constituency.

Mr. Pawsey : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be particularly beneficial if secondary schools that obtained grant-maintained status were accompanied by their feeder primary schools? Does he further agree that clusters of such schools in rural areas or denominational schools would be even more appropriate?

Mr. Patten : Both the examples that my hon. Friend gives are good ones. In the next year or so, we may well see schools adopting different ways of promoting their own movement to grant-maintained status. So much interest has there been in schools that have led the movement, such as the excellent Great Barr school in Birmingham--the biggest secondary school in the country, grant maintained or not--that they have been inundated by people ringing the self-starting helpline for advice on how to achieve grant-maintained status in the way that those schools did.

Mr. Corbett : Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will refuse grant-maintained status to any school that does not pledge to admit students with special needs?

Mr. Patten : I shall examine, as I have to by law, every proposal--

Mr. Morgan : Answer the question.

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman shows that he can do joined-up shouting. He certainly cannot do joined-up thinking. I shall consider-- [Interruption.] I do not think that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) welcomes the incursions and support from the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). I shall consider, as any Secretary of State from any party would have to do, every proposal put to me on its merits, as I am enjoined to do by law.

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Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Will my right hon. Friend give a more positive response to the supplementary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) about the importance of junior and infant schools applying for grant-maintained status? I thank the Department, my right hon. Friend and his predecessors for granting grant- maintained status to Kettleshulme Church of England junior school, as it was then--Kettleshulme St. James' as it is now--which assumed grant- maintained status on 1 April.

Mr. Patten : I apologise to my hon. Friend if he thought that I was not warm enough in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey). What it would be like if I got my hands round his throat, I do not know. I warmly accept the thanks to my Department and my predecessor, my right hon. and learned Friend the present Home Secretary, who did so much to forward the cause of education in Britain during his 15- month tenure. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend's constituency, if I am invited, and paying a state visit to the school which has just opted out there.

Mr. Straw : The right hon. Gentleman well knows that the main reason that schools have applied to opt out is the level of financial inducements which give them, to quote the Prime Minister's words, an advantage of at least £150,000 in running costs in a year and twice the level of capital grants. In view of that high level of bribe offered to schools to opt out, why do the Secretary of State and his colleagues continue to dodge the question, "Will those bribes continue?"

Mr. Patten : As the hon. Gentleman knows, at this time of year anyone concerned with a future expenditure programme will consider the whole programme. I, along with the rest of my Cabinet colleagues, will present plans for future public expenditure at the right time. In the grant -maintained schools that I have visited, the freedom that grant-maintained status has bestowed on them has been foremost in the minds of the governors and head teachers. Nothing could have been clearer when I visited Small Heath grant-maintained school in central Birmingham last week. Those parents, governors and head teachers, who had had to face the bullying of Birmingham local education authority, which tried to prevent them from opting out, presented a good picture of the real benefit, which is freedom in education.

Further and Higher Education

5. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on participation rates in further and higher education.

Mr. Forman : Participation in further and higher education is at record levels and rising. This year, provisional information indicates that 87 per cent. of 16-year-olds and 74 per cent. of 17-year-olds are participating in some form of education and training, including both schools and colleges. That compares with 67 per cent. and 52 per cent. respectively in 1979. The participation rate for young people in full-time higher education has doubled since 1979, from one in eight to one in four. We expect it to be one in three by the end of the decade.

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Mr. Field : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the Government's great success stories has been the tremendous increase in the number of students going on to further and higher education? Will he arrange to give more publicity to the access funds that the Government have made available to assist students with their studies? Will he also consider discussions with the Secretary of State for National Heritage, to find out whether some of the national lottery funds could be made available to students pursuing a career in the arts, for example opera, so that they can sing the praises of the Government's educational policies to Opposition parties?

Mr. Forman : I agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to draw attention to the Government's success record in expanding further and higher education. He will know that access funds cover about 90,000 students in further and higher education and that three out of four applications for help are successful. As for his ingenious proposal for support from the national lottery, it is far too early to say anything about that. As he showed by his question, he knows that that is essentially a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Mr. Turner : Does the Minister agree that participation rates in higher and especially in further education would be greatly helped, first, if the Government had not cut funds to colleges this financial year and, secondly, if there were not such heavy constraints on unemployed people, who are exempt from taking higher and further education courses under the 21-hour rule?

Mr. Forman : I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman takes that line, given that nine out of 10 of our 16-year-olds, and about three out of four 17-year-olds are in further education and training. Our record compares favourably with that of other countries.

Mr. Brooke : Although the participation rates that my right hon. Friend described are gratifying, is he satisfied with the number of people securing qualifications for higher education in mathematics and scientific subjects?

Mr. Forman : One can never be satisfied with the rate of qualification and one would always wish to see even greater progress made. However, I believe that the reforms of the national curriculum and the changes that we made in the Further and Higher Education Act all create a valid framework that will assist greater progress.

Trinity School, Leamington

7. Mr. Mullin : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received about Trinity comprehensive school in Leamington budgeting to raise £30,000 a year from parental contributions ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Forth : My right hon. Friend has received no such representations. Legislation specifically forbids parents from being required to pay for such things as books, equipment and school activities during the school day. But parents can and always have been able to make voluntary contributions. The manner in which such contributions are sought is a management issue for governors and head teachers.

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Mr. Mullin : I put it to the Minister that this is the thin end of a very large wedge and that, all over the country, parents are now being asked to contribute to their children's education. I put it to him that the principle of free state education has been abandoned. Before the Minister expresses hurt at that suggestion, may I ask him to tell us what he is doing to put a stop to that?

Mr. Forth : That question displays a typically mean-minded attitude- -not so much of the hon. Gentleman, but of other Labour Members. I remind the House--it seems necessary to repeat this until it sinks in with Labour Members--that spending per pupil in schools increased by more than 40 per cent. in real terms between 1979 and this year. Against that background, I believe that it is quite acceptable--indeed, laudable--that parents are prepared to come forward and to give voluntarily of their time and of their efforts for fund raising to help their child's school. I see nothing wrong with that. I believe that it helps the team spirit, which is developing in our schools, thanks partly to grant-maintained status and the local management of schools, which encourages parents to work together with governors and teachers to improve the quality of education. The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong, but I am not surprised about that.

Ms. Armstrong : Is the Minister totally unaware of the anger and dismay with which parents face this issue? Rather than being complacent, will the Minister address the concerns of parents who want a good education for every child, whether or not they can afford that? It is the Government's responsibility to ensure that that is available.

Mr. Forth : The hon. Lady is about five or six weeks too late. The truth is that parents have perceived correctly that the standards of education are increasing, that their young people are getting better opportunities and that the quality of education is improving. That is at least in part due to the fact that parents are coming forward to give of their time and efforts to help schools improve. That is the opposite of the attitude of Labour Members who cannot see past the local education authorities. Parents want to see past those authorities, which is why schools are opting out.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

8. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will indicate the amount of university research funding which relates to treatment of myalgic encephalomyelitis.

Mr. Forman : Universities Funding Council support for research is distributed by reference to a range of broad cost centres. There is no specific funding for research into ME or chronic fatigue syndrome. The UFC allocated£673 million for research in 1992-93, of which £78 million related to clinical medicine.

Mr. Dalyell : Will the interim results be circulated to general practitioners?

Mr. Forman : I recognise the hon. Gentleman's concern for and great knowledge of this subject. He will know that the Institute of Psychiatry's study of chronic fatigue syndrome is a project funded by the Medical Research Council, a body which is no longer the responsibility of my Department. However, I understand that no interim

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results have been submitted either to the MRC or to Ministers. Whether an interim result is circulated to GPs, when it is available, will be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Riddick : Will my hon. Friend confirm that any student taking advantage of that research funding would have to belong to the National Union of Students? Will he confirm that he intends to abolish that iniquitous closed shop?

Mr. Forman : I can confirm to my hon. Friend, whose long-standing interest in the subject is well known, that my Department is looking closely at the subject. We are urgently reviewing the matter.

Teachers' Pay

9. Mr. Madden : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received concerning the funding of the teachers' pay award ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. John Patten : I have received a number of representations.

Mr. Madden : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Bradford, for example, the failure of the Government fully to fund the teachers' pay award last year and this year has plunged the education service into a financial crisis with the prospect of 150 lost teaching posts and consequential damage to the quality of education received by our schoolchildren? Will he consider meeting a delegation of the local education authorities affected, through the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, and urgently consider making additional funding available to avoid teaching posts being lost?

Mr. Patten : Rather than taking up time with such a meeting, I urge the hon. Gentleman to pass on the information that in the current year the Government have given an extra £60 million to bridge the gap between the money allocated to local education authorities and the level they need fully to fund the pay award, and that many education authorities, such as Bradford, could greatly improve their performance by cutting out central administrative waste, by removing surplus school places and by extending the range of services put out to compulsory competitive tendering. Such measures result in more teachers in the classroom. The hon. Gentleman might also pass on to the AMA the news that it will be seen from figures to be announced shortly that last year's threats of cuts have turned out to be totally false.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that under pay review body arrangements he expects the teaching profession to be much better paid--it is already a great deal better paid than it has ever been-- that he welcomes that and believes that it will help to raise standards in the profession, which in turn will raise teaching standards for the children?

Mr. Patten : We are lucky to have our 400,000 teachers. Their professional status and standing has been enhanced by the pay review body and I know that that professionalism will increase in future years.

Mr. Cryer : The Secretary of State shows remarkable ignorance of the difficulties that LEAs in general, and

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Bradford in particular, face. Is he aware that Bradford's education authority is facing increasing school rolls, unlike many similar authorities, and that it has a massive problem of crumbling schools, all of which put pressure on educational funding? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will examine sympathetically, rather than in the arrogant fashion that he has displayed so far, the request by Bradford fully to fund the education award, which would be a decent and fair attitude for a sympathetic Secretary of State to take?

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman should realise that Bradford must put its own house in order. It is not exactly in the forefront of LEAs in Britain. It could do much more by cutting back on administration and by putting out more services to competitive tender, so getting children better taught by more teachers. We shall see, from announcements to be made by my noble friend Lady Blatch in another place shortly, just how last year's pandemonium and tumult about the onset of teacher redundancies turned out this year. Each year we get claims about there being great cuts in the teaching force and each year they turn out to be wrong.

Mr. Anthony Coombs : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the average salary of a classroom teacher is now £18,800 a year, which is 36 per cent. higher than it was under the last Labour Government, and that that is good reason why the number of applications for teacher training, at 28,800 is the highest it has been for the last 20 years? Does he agree that in view of the huge investment made in teachers' salaries by the Government, a rigorous system of assessment for teacher performance is absolutely vital?

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend is perfectly right. We have a better paid teaching profession than ever before, with more people wanting to enter the profession than at any time since the 1960s. I confirm that assessment will remain a firm part of the future way in which teachers are remunerated.


10. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Secretary of State for Education whether he has proposals to introduce selection by examination for secondary school entry.

11. Ms. Estelle Morris : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what proposals he has to introduce selection by examination for secondary school entry.

Mr. John Patten : We have consistently made it clear that the Government do not intend to impose any particular organisational pattern for schools. It is, in the first instance, for local education authorities and school governors to establish the organisation most appropriate for their area, in the light of local needs and the wishes of parents and the community.

We firmly believe in a diversity of provision of schools and in maximising choice for parents. We are ready to consider any application for a change in a school's character put forward by a local education authority or by the governors of voluntary schools or grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Griffiths : Why cannot the Secretary of State see that the selective opt-out structure will not mean that

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parents choose schools for their children, but that the schools choose the parents and children that they want? That will mean chaos, as many disappointed parents will appeal against the consignment of their children as an educational underclass forced to go to schools that have not opted out, which the Government deliberately fund less well than opted-out schools.

Mr. Patten : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's serious interest in the subject. Unfortunately, toward the end of his question he slipped into the lingua franca of the early 1960s when so much damage was done to the education system. The grant-maintained school system is beginning to show parents the positive opportunities that can be given to them by having a range of schools from which to choose. The more grant-maintained schools there are, the more pressure there will be on schools that underperform to perform better.

Ms. Morris : How will the Minister avoid the problems of entries to specialist or magnet schools by competitive examination, should the supply of places not meet the demand for them in any one specialism?

Mr. Patten : The hon. Lady comes to this place with a reputation for knowing a lot about education. I believe that to be so. Therefore, she knows as well as I do that today about a quarter of local education authorities have selection for a number of schools in their area. In addition, the excellent city technology colleges have spread across the country. I should like a number of schools to take the route of specialisation, developing a leading edge in technology, music, the arts or some other subject.

Mr. Butterfill : Will my right hon. Friend confirm, however, that selection has been retained in several areas? One of the problems in those areas is that pupils in junior and primary schools are often funded on a per capita basis at a lower level than pupils of the same age in middle schools. Does he agree that, if selection were to become more widely available, it would be wrong to maintain that differential? Will he take steps to eliminate the current differential?

Mr. Patten : It is certainly open to local education authorities to change their funding formula within their counties. I shall look specifically at the point that my hon. Friend raises and write to him in greater detail.

Mr. Butcher : Will my right hon. Friend take a close look at the German secondary education system, where tripartite selection puts children into high schools, technical schools and grammar schools at the expense of the state? Does my right hon. Friend not think it regrettable that selective schools are now predominantly fee-paying, because many parents would like free access to selective state schools?

Mr. Patten : The German education system has been praised by many educationists from right, left and centre of the political spectrum in this country, who have told us that we should take a look at those schools. Parents should have the widest possible choice of schools in their area, but parents and the local community should lay down the shape and pattern of that education, rather than its being done by diktat from my desk, attractive though that possibility is.

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Mr. Fatchett : Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, if standards have risen and the stay-on rate of post-16 education has increased, it is the result of a system that is predominantly comprehensive, and the comprehensive revolution in this country has been a success? Why do Conservative Members and the Secretary of State want to turn the clock back to a system in which one child out of five was deemed to be a success and four out of five deemed to be failures? Why do the Government trade in failure and not try to build on success?

Mr. Patten : That is the authentic voice of the early 1960s. The hon. Gentleman is refighting battles that the Labour party has long lost. It is no wonder that the Labour party lost the recent general election.

Secondary Schools (Admissions)

12. Mr. Merchant : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the impact of the Greenwich judgment on this year's secondary schools admissions systems.

Mr. Forth : The great majority of local education authorities do not appear to have had any significant practical problems with school admissions following the Greenwich judgment, this year or last year. We are aware of some difficulties in the London borough of Bromley. The Department is due to meet that local authority shortly and we hope that the problems there will soon be resolved.

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