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House of Commons

Tuesday 20 October 1992

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Durham Markets Company Bill


Read a Second time, and committed.

London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill

(By Order) Lords amendments agreed to.

Greater Manchester (Light Rapid Transit System)

(No. 4) Bill-- [Lords] (By Order)

London Docklands Railway (Lewisham, etc.)

(No. 2) Bill-- (By Order)

Price's Patent Candle Company Limited Bill

[Lords] (By Order) Read the Third time, and passed.

City of Bristol (Portishead Docks) Bill [Lords] (By Order) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday next.

South Yorkshire Light Rail Transit Bill

[Lords] (By Order) Read a Second time, and committed.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Student Loans Scheme

1. Mr. Hanson : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is his latest estimate of the number of defaulters on payments granted under the student loans scheme.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Nigel Forman) : As at 30 September, 5,174 borrowers owed two or more monthly instalments. That represents 9.1 per cent. of those who should be repaying their loans on time.

Mr. Hanson : Is the Minister aware that that figure is without doubt an underestimate for the future? There will be many more people struggling to pay and many people leaving their courses. Why do not the Government begin to scrap the scheme, so that people like me--who come from backgrounds that are not academic and who are not used to taking on debts in the family--are not dissuaded from taking up further and higher education? Many people will not take up higher education because of the Government's student loans scheme.

Mr. Forman : There is absolutely no evidence that the student loans scheme has deterred participation in higher education--indeed, quite the contrary. The numbers have increased staggeringly during the past 10 or 12 years and will continue to do so while quality is maintained.

Mr. Pawsey : Will my hon. Friend confirm that student support in the United Kingdom remains the most generous in the western world? Will he confirm that the number of students has increased, from a low point of less than 700,000 under the Labour Government, to substantially more than 1 million today? Will he further confirm that the target group of students was one in eight when Labour was in office, has fallen to one in four and is set to fall to one in three?

Mr. Forman : My hon. Friend is absolutely right : the package of support for students in this country is generous by international standards. Grants and loans together are now worth about 40 per cent. more than three years ago when there were grants alone.

Teachers' Pay and Conditions

2. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what recent meetings he has had with teachers' trade union representatives to discuss teachers' pay and conditions of service.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : I have asked the School Teachers Review Body to report on schoolteachers' pay and conditions in 1993-94. Teachers' pay is not a matter for negotiation between teachers' unions and the holder of my office.

Mr. Skinner : Is the Secretary of State aware that, with mass unemployment growing like a cancer in every town and city in Britain, teachers have got one hell of a job to do in trying to motivate young men and women to do

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better, because those young people see their brothers and sisters and friends without a job for three or four years? At this time, is it not totally wrong for the Government to say to teachers and their representatives that they are not fit to do their job and that they should have a pay freeze?

The Secretary of State should take it on board that I believe that, instead of a pay freeze for teachers and assessment of teachers, this Cabinet should be assessed. If members of the Cabinet had to pass a test, they would not qualify to do The Sun crossword.

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman is certainly a very vigorous exponent of the National Union of Teachers' case. He is a much better exponent of it than many of its leaders--I increasingly think of the hon. Gentleman as a kind of thinking man's Doug McAvoy.

I believe that teachers do an excellent job. Since 1979, they have received an increase in their pay of 46 per cent. in real terms. There is a minimum number of vacancies for teachers and people are crowding to join that very popular and successful profession.

Mr. Rowe : Is it possible for my right hon. Friend to invent a better system for dealing with those teachers who, through either sickness or incapacity, need to leave the service? It often takes months and months for them to do so, which means that the schools of which they are a member of the staff are left paralysed as to whether to appoint another teacher. Frequently those schools have to appoint another teacher, to the detriment of their other expenditure.

Mr. Patten : I am not aware of any recent complaints about this issue, but if my hon. Friend wants to draw any particular complaints to my attention I shall look at them. The average age of retirement for teachers is 59, but, occasionally, some teachers, for a host of reasons, have to leave the profession early. It is quite right that their departure should be part of a smooth transition, in their interests and those of their families.

At the moment, many people wish to join the profession. This autumn we expected 24,000 student teachers to enter teacher training colleges for the first year, but 29,000 did so because the profession is so appealing and buoyant under the Government.

Mr. Don Foster : Does the Secretary of State accept that his attitude towards teachers' pay and his many other recent attacks on teachers are lowering the morale of the teaching profession? What is his reaction to the comments made in an allegedly confidential document from the Conservative research department which, referring to the Secretary of State, spoke of

"Too much fire and brimstone' and ill-defined attacks on education experts'"

and said that he was doing little to raise morale in the education profession?

Mr. Patten : In view of the personal attacks that the hon. Gentleman has made on me, I should like him to substantiate them by placing in the Library of the House any evidence of a single occasion when he can find attributed to me--in quotes or in any other form--attacks on the teaching profession. If he cannot do that, I hope that he will come here to apologise, because I greatly value the teaching profession. During our very successful party

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conference in Brighton a week ago, we could see just how the teaching profession was applauded during my excellent speech. The boy who prepared the alleged report from Conservative central office was apparently a pretty inefficient character. He has now left the Department and he has resigned from the Conservative party. It is generally thought that he was a sleeper for the Liberal party.

Mr. Anthony Coombs : I welcome the large increase in real pay given to teachers in the past 10 years and the fact that record numbers wish to join the profession now. Does my right hon. Friend agree that most good teachers welcome appraisal and incentive systems that are based on school needs rather than those of the local authority? As a result, most of them welcome the local management of schools, which gives them the opportunity to have their salary related more closely to their performance.

Mr. Patten : Good educational standards such as those promoted by teachers underpin the values of our nation, and we should be grateful to them for that. The other side of that coin is to make it possible for performance-related pay to be available for the teachers in schools so that their performance may be recognised. The fact that there has been a 46 per cent. real terms increase in teachers' take-home pay since 1979, with the average salary for a teacher in England now being £20,630, speaks for itself.

Two-year Degree Courses

3. Mr. Cousins : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the Government's policy on the introduction of two-year degree courses.

Mr. Forman : The Government believe that there is scope for providing some existing courses on a more intensive basis, including accelerated degrees. It is for institutions to decide whether to develop such courses. The Government have no intention of imposing a uniform pattern.

Mr. Cousins : If the Minister really believes in quality and standards in higher education, he must face the fact that many vice- chancellors are telling their staff that they have a Government who do not understand their problems and do not support them. Is he aware that, in every institution of higher education, people are being told that they must expect during the lifetime of the present Government a doubling of student numbers, with no increase in real resources? Is he further aware that we are facing the prospect of standards and quality in higher education being gradually reduced to something like fourth-rate battery chickens, directly as a result of the Government's policies and their decisions on resources?

Mr. Forman : I am not sure that that supplementary question deserves a reply, but, as I am in a generous mood, I will tell the hon. Gentleman that the funding of higher education will continue to attract a fair share of resources within public expenditure and that the expansion of higher education, which is viewed on the basis of projections rather than targets, is likely to continue in the 1990s, while quality is maintained. We intend to maintain quality by ensuring that proper arrangements are in place at the institutional level and the level of the funding council.

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Student Loans Scheme

4. Mr. Battle : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many students applied for student loans during the last academic year.

15. Mr. Ian Bruce : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many students applied for student loans in the academic year 1991-92 ; and what was the figure for the previous year.

Mr. Forman : About 264,000 students applied for a loan in 1991-92. That compares with some 192,000 students in the previous academic year.

Mr. Battle : Is the Minister aware that, even before the term begins, students in Leeds are forced to pay half their maximum loans--about £400--on securing their accommodation? How on earth does he expect students to avoid being in debt to the tune of about £2,000 before their courses end? It is all very well for him to say that they will have jobs and therefore will be able to pay that money off, but why will the Government not bring forward proposals so that students are not saddled with crippling debt?

Mr. Forman : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not discovered as a result of his investigation of the issues that regional variations in housing costs are among the factors taken into account when access funds are used. The hon. Gentleman was talking about hardship cases--a familiar cry from Labour Members. The vast majority of students are not in hardship, there is no evidence of such hardship, and my evidence for saying that is that the take-up rate of student loans in the last full academic year--the loans are available to all students who want them--was about only 37 per cent.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Does the Minister recall that, when we debated the Bill applying to student loans, we were told that there would be a big reduction in the numbers taking degrees? What has been the reduction?

Mr. Forman : There has been absolutely no reduction in the number of people taking degrees. Indeed, the number of degrees taken has gone up consistently under Conservative rule and the quality of those degrees has been maintained. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.

Mr. Rooker : Although we welcome the recently announced Government survey of student incomes, we argue that such a survey is not strictly necessary. The Minister claims that there is no hardship among students. I urge him to check at random among all the higher educational institutes throughout the country to see the true situation. Will he take it from me that at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 72 per cent. of students eligible for the full grant are on an overdraft, one fifth of students whose parents are due to pay a contribution do not do so, or do not do so in full, and two thirds of students receive no extra support at all from their parents? Is he further aware that 22 per cent.--more than one fifth of students--have had to consider leaving university because of the financial hardship which they are suffering?

Mr. Forman : May I begin my reply in a conciliatory spirit by welcoming the hon. Member for Birmingham,

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Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) to his new responsibilities on the Front Bench. Many of us on this side of the House think that he should have been there a long time ago.

It would be good to know whether the evidence that the hon. Gentleman quotes includes students who have applied for a standard student loan. The first question that he should ask is whether they have done so. Access funds are targeted at students in greatest need and the hon. Gentleman will know from his research that there is provision in certain cases--mature students and those with dependants or disabilities--for special help to be available through the social security system. The overall package of student support is generous in this country ; indeed, it is more generous than in most of our competitor countries.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Our excellent university of Lancaster has 10 applicants for every place available because we offer the courses that students want and have the fifth highest pass rate in the country. We are building more student accommodation.

Mr. Forman : I congratulate my hon. Friend on always speaking up for Lancaster university. I can vouch for the fact that it is an excellent institution. It was the first university that I visited when taking up my responsibilities, and I agree with the main points that my hon. Friend made.

Mr. John D. Taylor : Do students from other European Community countries studying at universities in the United Kingdom have a right of access to those student loans?

Mr. Forman : I shall need to let the right hon. Gentleman know about that and shall write to him accordingly.

Local Management of Schools

5. Mr. Cohen : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will alter the LMS budget formula.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : The local management of schools budget formula is a matter for each local education authority to determine within the statutory framework. We shall, however, be consulting later in the year on the need for revisions to the LMS framework to take effect from April 1994.

Mr. Cohen : I welcome that reply, although I hope that the revisions will be brought forward to April 1993. Will the Minister assure us that there will be no Government-originated cuts next year in LMS budgets in schools? Does he understand that many experienced teachers are ending up on the scrap heap because the LMS formula discriminates against them?

Mr. Forth : There is no evidence whatever for the hon. Gentleman's over-dramatic assertion. I assure him that the local management of schools systems is working extremely well and that all the heads and teachers to whom I talk say that they would never want to go back to previous systems. We believe in the system, in local school decision making, and we think that there is growing evidence that the more decision making is given to heads, teachers and governors, the better is the quality of education decision making at local level. We are fully committed to that.

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Sir Malcolm Thornton : My hon. Friend will know of my concern about certain aspects of how the formula operates, particularly with regard to the average in and actual out of teachers' salaries. Will he assure me that, at the end of the review period, the matter will be looked at in detail? The curious effect is that it does not extend choice to governors in their appointment of staff but limits it, if the formula continues to discriminate against that aspect of our budgets.

Mr. Forth : I am well aware of my hon. Friend's concerns, which he has expressed frequently and most eloquently. I assure him that the review will cover all matters relating to the local management of schools, including the average actual that he mentioned. However, we must not lose faith with those authorities and schools that have demonstrated that they are well able to make the local management of schools system work, including the average actual salary matter. In our review, we shall take that very much into consideration. We must not penalise those who have made it work well, in an effort to bale out those who cannot or will not make it work properly.

Access Funds

6. Mr. Bill Michie : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received regarding the criteria used for determining the allocation of access funds.

Mr. Forman : Very few. The allocation criteria are a matter for institutions, provided that they are consistent with the Department's general guidance on the use of access funds.

Mr. Michie : The Minister should be aware of the reasons for setting up the access fund. It was to provide financial help to students in further and higher education whose education was being inhibited because of financial constraints, problems and difficulties. The Minister must be aware of the problem that I brought to his attention--a lone parent with two children was refused an access grant to finish her degree course, and that jeopardised her course's future. Will he look at the criteria again to make sure that it does not discriminate against lone parents, who are mainly women? Will he also increase the measly £26 million a year? After all, the Government can afford it because they took £70 million from student housing benefit.

Mr. Forman : As the hon. Gentleman says, he and I have corresponded about his constituent, Sheena Borthwick, who is a student at Sheffield Hallam university. As he knows, decisions in this case and in similar cases are best taken by the higher education institutions themselves because they are closest to the problems. Access funds are generous if properly targeted, and the £26 million for this year is perfectly adequate for the task if institutions manage the funds properly and concentrate on cases of real need.

Mr. Nigel Evans : Does my hon. Friend agree that students appreciate the availability of access funds which are directed to those who are most in need? Does he agree also that, during the general election, the Labour party was callous to suggest that there was money for all, money for the mushrooming number of students who are entering further and higher education, because Labour did not say

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where the money would come from and did not come clean and tell young people who wanted to enter further and higher education how many of them would have been deprived of the opportunity to benefit from that education?

Mr. Forman : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Labour specialises in uncosted promises and unbankable assurances. There is no reason why we should pay any attention to Labour's higher education policy.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : The Minister speaks about uncosted promises. Will he confirm that when the hardship funds were set up the Treasury saved £100 million on housing benefit and income support that students could no longer claim? Will he also confirm that many local authorities are no longer able to provide discretionary grants to students who want to enter further education? Yesterday, there was an announcement about pit closures. The nation and many of the people who will be thrown out of work could benefit from training and education. Has the Secretary of State been asked by the Department of Employment to make extra money available through hardship funds and discretionary grants in areas where unemployment will result from the closures?

Mr. Forman : I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new Front-Bench responsibility. The answer to his latter question is that the training and enterprise councils are taking a lead.

The hon. Gentleman asked about discretionary awards and the position of local authorities. In 1992-93, local authorities enjoyed an overall increase in their education funding of some 7 per cent. Well-managed local authorities, of which many are Conservative, are able to manage within that sum and provide discretionary awards where they are justified.

Mr. Hendry : Will my hon. Friend look into the unnecessary hardship being caused to students from Derbyshire where, for no reason other than budgetary and administrative incompetence by the county council, many students have not yet received their mandatory awards? Many others have been on their courses for more than a month and have not been told whether they will receive their discretionary awards.

Mr. Forman : My hon. Friend mentions a regrettable fact which merely shows the typical behaviour of Labour-controlled Derbyshire council. I note what my hon. Friend says and urge all councils to pay mandatory awards as efficiently and swiftly as possible.

School Governors

7. Mr. Martyn Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what respresentations he has had about changes in governors' responsibilities following the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988.

Mr. Patten : Many governors have told me of the considerable satisfaction their role brings. I pay tribute to them for the job they are doing in such large numbers.

Mr. Jones : I am surprised that the Minister has not had representations on this matter or has not noted Denbigh high school in my constituency which is worried that under LMS, and possibly under grant- maintained status, it may well be penalised under any number of Acts, such as the

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Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and the Employment Protection Act 1975, because there is no provision for the protection of the corporate identity of governing bodies. Does the Minister propose to do anything about that?

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman should not be surprised that I have not noticed his letter because if he sent it to me, it was a mistake to do so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is responsible for education in Wales. Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman by telling him to whom to address his letters. On his other point, about the corporate identity of governing bodies, we shall be addressing this in the forthcoming education Bill. I shall draw the point made by the hon. Gentleman to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who has responsibility for the school to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Harry Greenway : When my right hon. Friend looks at the responsibilities of governors, particularly in administration of LMS funds, will he see whether it is possible, in the review that has been announced to the House, to look at the cost of inspections under the admirable new system? Is he aware of a school not far from the House that is being required to pay £25,000 for a school inspection out of budget? Is that not an enormous imposition on a school in one year?

Mr. Patten : Charging for school inspections will be a matter for Professor Stewart Sutherland, Her Majesty's inspector of schools and the head of the Office of Standards in Education. If my hon. Friend will give me the name of the school, I will draw his point to the attention of the chief inspector.

Nursery Education

8. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans he has to increase the numbers of children in nursery education.

Mr. Forth : It is for local authorities to determine the scale and form of provision for the under-fives, but the House would wish to be reminded that 175,000 more under-fives attended maintained schools in England in 1991 than in 1979 and that 90 per cent. of three and four-year- olds now enjoy education or group child care or both.

Mr. Flynn : That is a complacent answer. Is it not a continuing waste and a disgrace that 32 local education authorities in England provide no full-time nursery education whatever? Will the Minister congratulate the Welsh Labour-controlled local authorities which provide such splendid quality and such a high proportion of nursery education? Can the Minister explain why a child is far more likely to get a chance of nursery education if he lives in a Labour-controlled area than if he lives in a Conservative- controlled area?

Mr. Forth : That illustrates the rather pathetic dogma peddled by Labour Members, which roughly runs along the lines of, "If it is not supplied by a local education authority, it cannot be supplied at all." Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that what we have seen develop over the past 12 or 13 years is a mixed and diverse

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system which responds to the real needs of people in communities. Some of that may well be provided by local education authorities. A lot will be provided by the excellent other sources which make provision of the kind that parents want. I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. John Marshall : How many European Community countries start compulsory education at the age of five?

Mr. Forth : I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. The answer is, hardly any.

Mr. Cryer : How many?

Mr. Forth : It is difficult to be specific as the criteria by which the starting age is defined vary from country to country. However, we can be certain that this country is providing universal provision at age five and substantial provision before that in the maintained sector. That is well up with most of our European partners, and ahead of most.

Physically Handicapped Children

9. Mr. Jon Owen Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps the Government propose to take to help integrate more physically handicapped children into the general school system.

Mr. Patten : It has been the Government's policy since the enactment of the Education Act 1981 that all pupils with special education needs should, wherever practicable, be integrated into the mainstream of school education. Our proposals for legislation will significantly improve all aspects of the arrangements for provision for these pupils.

Mr. Jones : Will the Secretary of State note that before coming to this place I spent 10 years teaching in a school in which physically handicapped children were integrated? I can testify to the benefits of that experience both for those children and for able-bodied children. I am worried, however, about whether the Government will ring fence the money necessary to adapt schools so that physically handicapped children can be integrated, especially at a time when schools are being charged from their own finances. As I understand it, there is no extra funding for physically handicapped children but only for children with learning difficulties.

Mr. Patten : I had not realised the hon. Gentleman's experience in these matters. I pay tribute to what he did in the circumstances that he has outlined. If ever he wants to talk to me about these issues, I shall be pleased to see him. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that in England--my figures are for England only and not for Wales--the numbers of handicapped children being educated in mainstream schools has risen from 15 per cent. in 1985 to 37 per cent. during the current year. The Audit Commission has recently drawn to the attention of local authorities in its excellent report entitled "Getting in on the Act" just how much more local authorities could and should do in this direction.

Sir John Hannam : Is my right hon. Friend aware that part of the campaign against grant-maintained schools is that they will not provide places for children with special education needs? Will he allay that fear and the fears of the parents involved?

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Mr. Patten : I can certainly do that. All grant-maintained schools will have to take pupils with special education needs. I deplore the attacks by some on grant-maintained schools, including the claim that such schools will not take pupils with special education needs. That is a straight insult to the professionalism of teachers in grant-maintained schools. We have only to consider excellent secondary schools which have gone grant maintained, such as Bishopshalt school in Uxbridge and St. Helen's school in Bluntisham, Cambridgeshire, to realise what centres of excellence

grant-maintained schools are in dealing with children with special education needs. The schools should be congratulated.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Will the Secretary of State rectify an omission by his junior Minister? When his hon. Friend met the Spastics Society in September he welcomed the society's report, "A Hard Act to Follow", but somehow omitted to mention another report which found in favour of the Spastics Society and the National Union of Teachers on exactly the same subject, entitled "Within Reach : Access for Disabled Children to Mainstream Education". In both reports the underlying theme is that resourcing is crucial. Will the Secretary of State confirm that provision of resources for children with special needs will be made over and above the general education budget?

Mr. Patten : I welcome any report made by the Spastics Society which is directed to this important area. The society has responded positively to the consultation document issued by my noble Friend Baroness Blatch, the Minister of State, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Schools. The response has been positive. Resources and available moneys are always important, but equally important is the way in which money is spent. In that respect, report after report has pointed the finger at local education authorities.

Grant-maintained Schools

10. Mr. Jacques Arnold : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on progress with the development of grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Patten : There are now 278 grant-maintained schools educating some 200,000 pupils. A further 30 schools are now approved. I announced yesterday that Sawtry village college, Cambridgeshire had become the 300th school to be approved for grant-maintained status. The applications of 179 more schools are currently being considered within the Department or being published. I am delighted that so many schools and parents have opted for this successful new way of managing themselves in such a short period.

Ms. Estelle Morris rose--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. There is so much noise in the Chamber that I can barely hear what is happening. I ask the House to calm down so that I can call Mr. Jacques Arnold to ask his supplementary question.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : My right hon. Friend will know that three of the schools that he mentioned are to be found in Gravesham, where parents voted by a majority of five to one, rising to nine to one, in favour of grant-maintained schools. Has my right hon. Friend noticed that since such schools were established, thanks to local decision taking

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and local value for money, those schools are showing greater flexibility and providing better education for the young people concerned?

Mr. Patten : The schools in my hon. Friend's constituency are beacons of excellence, providing improved standards while also looking after those children who need help and support, including those with special education needs.

The point about my hon. Friend's question is that debate in his area about whether to go grant maintained was free and open and without political bias. I utterly deplore the tactics of a number of Labour party members, and particularly of some hon. Members in sending parents unsolicited letters on House of Commons writing paper making the most vindictive threats about education in their area.

Ms. Estelle Morris : The Secretary of State made it clear in his White Paper that he wishes all schools to seek grant-maintained status. Will he explain to the House what evidence he had about the performance of grant-maintained schools before encouraging mass opt-outs? In particular, will he tell the House how many grant-maintained schools have been subject to a full inspection by and report from Her Majesty's inspectorate?

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