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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 May 1993

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Dunham Bridge (Amendment) Bill

Read the Third time, and passed

Oral Answers to Questions


Standard Assessment Tasks

1. Mrs. Roche : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many schools he has received representations from urging him to make this year's SATs voluntary ; and what proportion this is of the total number of schools in the state system.

4. Mr. Wells : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will direct the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to consider simplifying tests at seven, 11 and 14 years of age on the principle of establishing tests that take minimal teacher and pupil time while being effective measures of achievement of basic skills.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : Since the beginning of the year, the Department has received about 6,500 letters about testing, making many different points. I have asked Sir Ron Dearing to review the national curriculum and assessment framework with the aim of simplifying it while retaining the key features of clear teaching objectives, regular tests and high standards. I shall, with permission, make a statement about further arrangements later today.

Mrs. Roche : Given the widespread opinion among parents, school governors, teachers and his own advisers, why cannot the Secretary of State give a clear and unambiguous commitment to withdraw those fatally flawed tests this year?

Mr. Patten : The tests to which the hon. Lady has referred--for example, the tests for seven-year-olds--have been proceeding satisfactorily since 1991. They were taken again in 1992. In most primary schools up and down the land, they have been successfully completed already.

Mr. Wells : May I urge my right hon. Friend to continue and to persist with testing? Surely the original idea was that the tests should be short, sharp and easily marked, and that they would lead to a proper assessment of the place that each child had reached. There would then be

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possibilities of remedial action and teaching could be accelerated to higher standards for those able to achieve them. Is not that the objective?

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the great Education Reform Act 1988, our whole aim was to begin to catch up with our competitors who had had national curricula and assessment regimes for many decades. It is the Government's intention to continue to catch up as rapidly as possible with our international competitors, while making the national curriculum and the associated testing arrangements as slim and manageable as possible--a process which we have already started with the tests for seven-year-olds.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the Secretary of State tell us how many of those 6,500 letters were in favour of the Government's arrangements for testing? Does he recall my advice to him in Education Question Time on 17 November, when I suggested that he should consult his Scottish ministerial colleagues and listen to their explanation of how they had established a system of assessment that enjoyed the confidence of parents and teachers? Why is the Scottish system so unacceptable to English Ministers? Does the Secretary of State's arrogance stretch to his ministerial colleagues? Did he hear the Prime Minister say that Ministers should curb their arrogance? To which Cabinet Ministers does he think the Prime Minister was referring?

Mr. Patten : Two things about that : The 6,500 letters that we have received since the beginning of the year contain a wide range of views because-- [Interruption.] No--listen, listen. Would the hon. Lady be good enough to listen? The letters contain a wide range of views because anything at all concerning testing, assessment or the curriculum always attracts a wide range of strong and passionate concerns. One is always going to get that and I welcome it because I think that the country needs a great debate on education. The more the general public who are interested and concerned want to write in giving their points of view, the more I welcome it.

I was asked a second question, which I must answer briefly, Madam Speaker. In Scotland, they do not have a Education Reform Act or a statutory national curriculum. The system in Scotland as far as education is concerned is as different as the situation in Scotland is concerned as far as law is concerned where they have a Roman law system.

Sir Malcolm Thornton : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that a significant proportion of the letters that his Department has received about testing related to key stage 3 testing, and that much of the evidence on key stage 1 testing--which is now in force in many of our schools and which has been reformed in the light of experience over the past three years--suggests that it is now beginning to bring benefits, as recent Her Majesty's inspectorate reports have shown? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in this whole debate, the principle of testing is not negotiable but is an integral part of the Government's reforms?

Mr. Patten : There is not an inch between my hon. Friend and me on the issue of testing. I can certainly confirm that a number of the 6, 500 letters were about key stage 3 testing. Many more were about key stage 1 testing at age seven. I must tell my hon. Friend and the House that we are awaiting the results of a ballot held by the National Union of Teachers, which wishes to stop, not only this year

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but next year, teaching at all levels ; I am so sorry, it wishes to stop testing at all levels--at seven, 11 and 14--not only in 1993 but in 1994, including those very successful tests for seven- year-olds which Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools yesterday commended when he launched the Office for Standards in Education's five- year corporate plan.

Mr. Steinberg : Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that the tests have proved to be flawed, that the vast majority of teachers propose to boycott them and that parents are totally against them, the tests really cannot go ahead? If the Secretary of State finds that he cannot get his own way--due to his arrogance--will he introduce legislation to force teachers to carry out the tests?

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman must wait and see what is in the Queen's speech this year, next year or the year after. The hon. Gentleman has a perfectly legitimate interest, which he has declared, in the NUT. I can tell him that I have had his friend Mr. McAvoy in for a cup of tea in my Department to discuss these issues. Mr. McAvoy--who, I can reveal, I actually quite like personally, although I disagree with him profoundly on professional matters--has told me that he is totally against regular testing of children at key stages year by year and totally against the publication of results school by school.


2. Mr. Brandreth : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received from the Queen's English Society on the teaching of spoken English ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Patten : I have received no direct representations from the Queen's English Society, but I know that the society was one of the bodies whose evidence the National Curriculum Council took into account in framing its recent recommendations for changes to the national curriculum English, which I warmly welcome.

We believe that the proposals that we published for consultation on 15 April will help to ensure that pupils develop confidence and competence in their use of spoken English, and, more generally, will raise expectations and standards in the subject, which is critically important.

Mr. Brandreth : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Queen's English has nothing to do with accent and everything to do with communication? Is he aware that recently the business community has reckoned that problems with literacy and numeracy are costing industry some £4.8 billion a year and that business is crying out for the Government to do something about literacy, numeracy and communication skills for our young people?

Mr. Patten : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's points, made with his characteristically clear diction, in standard English throughout. My hon. Friend is quite right. We have been told by the adult literacy and basic skills unit that the cost to industry of young people going in without adequate skills and without being able to express themselves is between £4 billion and £5 billion a year. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House can agree that it is critically clear that, when youngsters leave school and make job applications, they are able to make those applications in clear written English and that they are able to answer questions in interviews in the

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clearest possible way. That is why the speaking of standard English is so important and why I welcome the views of the society.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Is the Secretary of State aware that those of us who were never learnt to speak English proper certainly do not lack the intellectual ability to discern that in these issues, as in many others, the Secretary of State is a complete Gombeen--that is an Irish expression-- and nor do we lack the ability to communicate those issues? When we have a Secretary of State--I appreciate that he is a little nervous today--who tells the House about "a education" and "Mr. McAvoy who I met in my office", he is in no position to begin to educate young people up and down the country on the benefits of standard English or, indeed, any other way of communicating properly and adequately in the English language.

Mr. Patten : Not for the first time in answering the hon. Gentleman's questions, I am completely confused because of his failure to put them clearly. All that I can say is that it is critically important for all of us to be able to express ourselves as clearly as possible, as the Hansard report of what I have said will make clear tomorrow and as anyone who is listening will have heard. I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares with me--I did not understand the Irish expression that he used--the necessity for anyone applying for a job, whether they are 16, 17, 18 or any age, to express themselves clearly in standard English. That is why standard English and the recommendations of the National Curriculum Council are so important.

Universities (Tuition Fees)

3. Mr. Batiste : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he monitors the promptness of payments of tuition fees by local authorities to universities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : Local education authorities have a statutory duty to pay tuition fees promptly by the dates specified in the Mandatory Awards Regulations. The Department takes action on any evidence of failure to comply.

Mr. Batiste : Is my hon. Friend aware that last year a number of local authorities were late in passing on tuition fees, which they had received from the Government, to universities and that there is some evidence that that pattern has been repeated this year? Is it not entirely wrong that higher education should be denied funds because of late payment by local authorities? Is it not time that the Government thought about the way in which money could be transferred direct to universities without going through the post box of local government?

Mr. Boswell : I agree with my hon. Friend that it is most unsatisfactory if payments are not made in time. It is not even in the interests of the local authorities, because they do not get interest on the money, which is lodged in a special account with the Paymaster General. It is sometimes a matter of administrative complication or failure. We most vigorously investigate those cases in which, under the existing award system, it is apparently impossible for them to pay on time, as they should.

Mr. Rooker : Will the Minister find out why the problem does not arise in Scotland and see whether he can apply the

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lessons learnt there to the situation in England? Will he accept from me that, the last time I checked, universities were owed almost £100 million after the date on which payment was due? One in five local authorities is a late payer, and some local authorities pay the fees for the second term before the fees for the first term. Any half-awake local authority treasurer who is handed, effectively, control of millions of pounds of central Government funds to pass on without any penalty for late payment will work that money for his or her employer or local authority. Is it not time that some sort of interest penalty was placed on the late payment of tuition fees and at the same time, while we are thinking about it, an interest penalty paid for the late payment of mandatory award grants to students, who suffer just as badly?

Mr. Boswell : I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about Scotland, have taken note of them and am aware of the situation there. We have improved the system in England. There is no advantage to local authorities, because the money lodged to their credit by the due date does not attract interest in their hands. We watch carefully for failures to pay and will tighten that up. He also mentioned the more general issue of student grants and I am concerned about any that are not paid on time. They are, or they should be, paid early in, or at the beginning of, term and that is one reason why we leave tuition fees until the end of term, to try to avoid the two becoming confused. We pursue vigorously authorities that fail to pay. There are fewer than there were, but there are still too many.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Is my hon. Friend aware that now that the county elections are behind us, it is rumoured that Lancashire county council is proposing to abolish the appeals procedure for students seeking discretionary grants ? Is not that grossly unfair to the students and further evidence of its arrogance, which has been allowed to surface now that the elections are over ?

Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend goes wider still--the nature of discretion is that it has to be exercised. I shall take a dim view of any local authority that removes its discretion by saying that it will not consider payment in a certain case.

Surplus School Places

6. Mr. Gapes : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how his Department determines whether a local authority has an apparent surplus of primary school and secondary school places ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Patten : The Department for Education conducted a survey of surplus capacity in 1991, comparing the total capacity of schools in each authority with total pupil numbers. We are consulting local education authorities on the scope for reducing that surplus, taking into account demographic and other changes since the survey.

Mr. Gapes : Is the Secretary of State aware that if he moved to Ilford, South and had an eight-year-old son or daughter in year four, he would not be able to get a place for his child in seven of the 10 schools in my constituency, and in three schools he would get a place only for a catchment area child ? Highlands school in Cranbrook ward has 36 children in two classes and Christchurch primary and infant school has 35 children in every class

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from reception to year six. What is he going to do about it ? Why is Redbridge council considering putting Portakabins on a building site to deal with the problem, yet the Government refused to allow the council to build the school that is needed in my constituency ?

Mr. Patten : I appreciate the hon. Member's strength of feeling on behalf of his constituents. A basic needs formula is applied by my Department to make new school building possible when there is an established need for extra places. His question demonstrates how critically important it is for us to get to grips with the fact that there are many hundreds of thousands of surplus school places, where money is being spent on roofs and not on educating children. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me in our campaign to ensure that those surplus places are wrung out of the system, so that money can be transferred from where it is being wasted to where it may be needed--it is up to the hon. Gentleman's local authority to make the case.

Mr. Dickens : Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether he thinks that the criteria are working, in the sense that if there are places within a 2-mile radius of an overcrowded school, it is prohibited from being rebuilt on a new site? Our hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), the Under-Secretary of State for Schools, has been dealing with Holy Trinity county primary school in Dobcross, in the hills of Saddleworth. In winter 2 miles is a long way to bus children in Saddleworth, although 2 miles on the flat in an urban area is not far at all.

Mr. Patten : As my hon. Friend knows, I visited Saddleworth, at his invitation, in the winter and I know what it is like. In applying any criteria for catchment areas to schools there is a dilemma. On all occasions, we must take two things into account : first, in the interests of rural communities, we must preserve small rural schools with large catchment areas ; secondly, we must make it possible for popular schools to expand. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and I have been most concerned to make advances on the latter in recent months and we hope to make announcement in the not-too-distant future.

Education Spending, Humberside

7. Mr. Austin Mitchell : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what has been the standard spending assessment for education in Humberside for each of the last two years.

Mr. Boswell : Humberside's education standard spending assessment rose by some 16 per cent. to £321 million in 1991-92 and to more than £342 million, including the additional grant for teachers' pay, in 1992-93--a rise of some 24 per cent. in two years. Its education standard spending assessment for 1993-94 is more than £305 million--an underlying increase of 1.8 per cent. allowing for the transfer of responsibility for most further education expenditure to the new funding council.

Mr. Mitchell : I thank the Minister for those statistics. Does he accept that the increase in Humberside's education SSA has been less than the national increase, resulting in the past three years in a cumulative loss of £3.5 million to the county? Does he further accept that Humberside's spending last year of more than 8 per cent.

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over its SSA to give kids a bit better education has had to be cut because of the threat of budget capping? As a result of cutting the improvement over SSA, every school in Grimsby is losing between one and seven teachers and faces classes that much larger. Every child in Grimsby will receive an education that much worse than it should be. Does the Minister regard that as acceptable?

Mr. Boswell : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware from his local knowledge that the number of pupils in Humberside is static. The national numbers show a 1.2 per cent. increase in the current year. The difference in funding reflects that specific fact. If the hon. Gentleman does not like the present formula, it is open to him at any stage to suggest an alternative formula to my colleagues in the Department of the Environment. If he can find a formula that commands universal acceptance, including among his colleagues, he will be a clever man indeed. The present formula seeks to balance all the factors in the fairest possible way between local education authorities.

Mr. Michael Brown : Is not the real position that Humberside county council simply does not know how to manage its budget? In neighbouring Lincolnshire, the local authority under Conservative control-- [Interruption.] --at least until last Thursday, was able, and I hope will still be able, to deliver education to the people of Lincolnshire with more resources. Does my hon. Friend agree that in Lincolnshire a higher proportion of expenditure previously went on education than is likely to be the case under the new arrangements in Lincolnshire?

Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend is precisely right as usual. I am sure that the good work done previously by Lincolnshire county council will stand to its advantage when it is remembered in due course.


8. Mr. Anthony Coombs : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what measures he is taking to improve standards in the teaching of English in schools.

11. Mr. Thomason : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement about the proposals for the revision of English in the national curriculum.

Mr. Patten : The new proposals for English, which I published together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales on 15 April, aim to simplify, streamline and strengthen the present curriculum by defining more clearly the essential skills which English teaching should promote and reducing the number of requirements to be satisfied. We believe that the proposals will provide a firmer structure to ensure that pupils acquire knowledge and understanding of the English language, grammar and vocabulary, as well as the ability to speak it with confidence. They should also ensure that pupils learn about their literary heritage and study the works of our greatest writers.

In the light of consultation on our proposals in England and Wales, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I expect to publish a draft order for a revised English curriculum later in the year for further statutory consultation.

Mr. Coombs : In view of the difficulties in reading and writing experienced by a significant minority of

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14-year-olds and 16-year-olds according to the National Curriculum Council and given the streamlining of the English curriculum mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, does he agree with Sir Ron Dearing and Stewart Sutherland that it is crucial that tests for 14-year-olds in English go ahead this year? Does he further agree that it is craven almost to the extent of Pontius Pilate for the Opposition to argue in favour of tests on principle while refusing to condemn the boycott of the tests by many teachers which would damage the tests so badly in practice?

Mr. Patten : To answer the second of my hon. Friend's two questions first, many people say that they are in favour of a national curriculum and testing but are afraid to come forward and set out exactly what they mean. That behaviour has been characteristic of the Opposition throughout the past year.

On my hon. Friend's first point, testing is critical not just for 14-year- olds but for seven-year-olds. As Sir Ron Dearing and Professor Stewart Sutherland, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, said yesterday, the testing of seven-year-olds has not only led to some improvements and a greater expectation among teachers of what they can expect from their children, but demonstrated that two out of three children aged seven cannot read the simplest words. It is those children who need to be helped throughout their school careers and that is why we need the testing regime that we have introduced.

Mr. Thomason : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is totally unacceptable that 30 per cent. of 16-year-olds are unable to master the basic reading skills expected of people of that age? Will he ensure that under the national curriculum, to which he referred a moment ago, the proper teaching of English is introduced?

Mr. Patten : It is entirely right that the National Curriculum Council recommendations should concentrate to a greater extent on the basics--standard English, reading and writing. It is always right to reveal problems that have been hidden. It was only in this past year that we discovered, for the first time, that some 300,000 16-year-old school leavers going on to further education had a reading age of 14 years or less. That must be put right and that is why we need the slimmer national curriculum English orders, which are now in draft. That is why we need testing and why, and how, we must catch up with our international competitors. In France, for example, the testing of eight and 11-year-olds has gone on for decades.

Mr. Enright : Will the Secretary of State explain how affixing captions to "Pam's Paper pictures" assists in the tests for 14-year-olds? Would he not be better advised to correct the English used by the other Departments of Her Majesty's Government, which send out to us appallingly written documents in appalling numbers?

Mr. Patten : I remember that during our most recent debate on education the hon. Gentleman got into a muddle about the membership of his own union. He could not even remember the name of his union, to which he referred incorrectly. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman-- [Interruption.] Order. I think that when the testing of 14-year-olds takes place this summer and the results have been published, some time after those tests have been

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taken, people will wonder what on earth the fuss was about and they will see exactly what good those tests will do.

Mr. Dafis : The Secretary of State will be aware of the views of the Curriculum Council for Wales on the rather questionable entity of standard English. It strongly disapproves of the principle that children aged six or seven should have their English corrected to bring it into line with the so -called standard form. I wonder whether the Secretary of State would care to congratulate that organisation on its good sense. As part of the process of making the proposed curriculum and assessment authority for Wales genuinely autonomous, will he ensure that the council's recommendations are accepted in Wales?

Mr. Patten : As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am not responsible for education in Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is consulting on the draft proposals from the Curriculum Council for Wales and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's views are drawn to his attention.

Special Needs Education

9. Mr. Steen : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will take steps to improve the process of statementing children ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : The Education Bill, now in another place, builds on the Education Act 1981, creating a new framework for all children with special educational needs. Pupils who need statements will benefit from many of the new arrangements, including time limits on the making of assessments and statements. We shall issue comprehensive, practical guidance to local education authorities and schools in the form of a code of practice.

Mr. Steen : That is all very well, but is my hon. Friend aware that there are children with special needs in some of the most deprived urban areas who have to wait up to three years before they can be tested because of the philosophical and political views of the local authority, which is opposed to the testing? Will he consider enlarging the powers of the ombudsman so that parents can go direct to the ombudsman, who can then direct local authorities, mostly Labour, to get a move on?

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend is correct in identifying unacceptable delays in producing statements of special educational needs and also unacceptable variations between authorities. We are well aware of the problems and they are exactly what the Bill, now in another place, will address. We shall issue regulations to put time limits on the statementing process ; we shall issue a code of practice to introduce a standard format for statements to ensure that all children are uniformly and properly cared for ; and we shall introduce a tribunal to give genuinely independent advice and be an independent source of appeal to parents who feel that they have not been properly treated. If my hon. Friend looks at what is in our Bill and at the code of practice and tribunals that will follow, he will see that the problems that he has identified will be dealt with fairly and firmly.

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Mr. Win Griffiths : Does the Minister accept that, although what he said is likely to produce an improvement in the present situation, which all too often leads to heart-rending difficulties for parents and children, even today a lobby of the House is being organised by the Spastics Society in which several hundred parents will have terrible stories to tell of the stress that they havetement. Will the Minister now commit himself to making sure that all local education authorities have the resources to provide for the needs specified in any child's statement?

Mr. Forth : I am very much aware of the views of the Spastics Society and I keep them closely under review. The society has not yet perhaps fully appreciated the advances that the Bill represents. I hope that when it realises what the code of practice and the regulations to follow mean, it will be happier than it now appears to be with that advance.

I believe that local authorities have the right resources to provide for statements and for those children with special needs who are not covered by a statement. The fact that the proportion of children statemented by local educational authorities varies between just over 1 per cent. in some authorities to more than 4 per cent. in others demonstrates that different authorities have taken different views up to now and that parents and their children, therefore, have tended to be treated differently. The Bill will address that problem and will make uniform the content of statements and the approach to be taken. I hope that the Spastics Society and all the other special educational needs interest groups will welcome that when they have reflected on it and seen the full development of our proposals under the Bill.

Grant-maintained Schools

10. Dr. Liam Fox : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what recent surveys have been conducted into the operation of grant-maintained schools ; and what are the main findings.

Mr. Patten : The Grant Maintained Schools Centre published the results of its latest annual survey of self-governing grant maintained schools in November last year. They demonstrate how self-governing schools are benefiting from the freedom to manage their own affairs and control their own budget.

The report by the Office for Standards in Education on 81 grant-maintained schools, published on 30 March, concluded that grant-maintained schools were adapting well to their new framework and were taking advantage of the new opportunities that grant-maintained status offered. The report also noted that grant-maintained schools were attracting increasing numbers of pupils.

There are about 775 grant-maintained schools today, either operating, approved or awaiting approval.

Dr. Fox : Will my right hon. Friend communicate that information to Avon education authority which has sent to parents in schools that wish to become self-governing a politically bigoted letter that amounts to emotional blackmail? Does he agree that that sort of malevolent

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nonsense is likely to become an ever-greater feature of those councils that came under Labour or Liberal control last week?

Mr. Patten : I understand from papers that my hon. Friend has sent me that schools in the Woodspring constituency, like St. John the Evangelist, are feeling inhibited about going for grant-maintained status because of what they regard as coercion by Labour-controlled Avon council. That is why the Education Bill, presently in another place, will make it possible for at least a substantial amount of the effort that has been put into using council tax payers' funds by councils to intimidate schools to be brought to a halt, and quite right too.

Mrs. Mahon : Has not the Minister been embarking on crude bribery to get schools to opt out? If he denies that, will he explain why, in Calderdale, three grant-maintained schools recently received a capital improvement grant of £450,000 while the other 109 schools had to make do with £223,000? Is that not a straightforward bribe to get schools to opt out?

Mr. Patten : I am sorry that the hon. Lady is displeased that three schools in her area have had such large capital grants. In the past, successful schools, often voluntary-aided schools, have been consistently starved of capital funds that were much needed for modernisation of buildings and expansion. One of the reasons why grant-maintained status is so important is that it allows popular, oversubscribed schools the possibility of expanding, and quite right too.

Dame Angela Rumbold : Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the schools that have achieved grant-maintained status would like the benefits of that status to be expressed in clear terms? Those schools not only attract more pupils, provide better education by dint of better standards and have rather better teachers, but attract a larger number of people willing to come forward as governors. All those factors should be made clear to the cantankerous Liberal and Labour-controlled authorities.

Mr. Patten : I have two points for my right hon. Friend. First, there are queues of children waiting to go to grant-maintained schools, which are extremely popular. Secondly, although, in comparison with maintained schools, I have visited only a small number of grant-maintained schools, in every one that I have visited, teachers and governors have told me that they relish their new freedom to run their affairs and their schools to their own agenda. That is a central part of the Conservative philosophy on which we were elected at the last general election.

Special Schools

12. Mr. Eastham : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what was the number of special schools operating in Manchester local education authority (a) five years ago, (b) last year and (c) currently.

Mr. Forth : Throughout the period in question, there have been 26 special schools and two special units in the Manchester local education authority.

Mr. Eastham : As the Minister is aware, the Government have never met their responsibilities to disabled children under the Education Act 1981. Later this

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year, more special schools will be closed. Will the Government give the House a firm assurance that they will make sure that there is sufficient money available for lifts, ramps, changing facilities, special toilets, furnishing and laboratory equipment, all of which will be needed for such children? It is one thing to say that we want integration in schools soon, and another to have the money to do the job.

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman should talk to his hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench about their attitude to the provision of special schools as opposed to those in the mainstream. It is, and rightly so, for the local education authority--in this case, Manchester--to decide how far it believes that there should be provision in special schools and units or mainstream provision. That is its responsibility and I would look to, and expect, it to discharge that responsibility properly.


13. Dr. Goodson-Wickes : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what studies he has made into the treatment of dyslexic children in examinations ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Forth : The results of a three-year research project on special educational needs and the GCSE, commissioned by the School Examinations and Assessment Council and undertaken by the centre for assessment studies at Bristol university, is due to report to the council this summer. The research report is expected to address the position of candidates suffering from various disabilities, including dyslexia.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes : I understand that there are wide variations in the policies and practices of examination boards in the treatment of dyslexic children. Will the Minister give the House an assurance that their special needs will be recognised, especially in relation to concessions taking into account psychologists' reports so that that untapped talented group of people can achieve its full potential?

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend asks an important question. At the moment, the examining groups try, wherever possible, to take the fullest possible account of children with disabilities and difficulties, in particular dyslexia. They try to strike that difficult balance between an examining and testing process that does justice to all pupils and one that takes proper account of those with particular special needs. I will certainly look again at the matter in order to satisfy myself that the examining groups are treating it properly, but I believe that, generally speaking, they have probably got the balance about right.



Q1. Mr. Pickthall : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

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Mr. Pickthall : I thank the Prime Minister and the many Cabinet Ministers who campaigned in Lancashire in recent weeks and helped Labour vastly to increase its vote and achieve a majority on the local council. Was it in Lancashire that the Government heard about the challenging environment that they faced, the big hole that they were in and the bloody nose they were about to get? Did they listen to the people of Lancashire on value added tax, testing in schools, unemployment and the attacks on local democracy? Can the people of Britain expect the Government's supposed listening to the people to be translated into action to rebuild the country, instead of the present policies which are dismantling it?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman clearly deserves an A-level in smugness. Perhaps I may quote something to the hon. Gentleman from The Sunday Times that I have no doubt he will find of interest. The quote, which he may enjoy, reads as follows :

"Conservative set-backs in Thursday's county council elections were so severe that Labour would win the general election on the same voting breakdown."

That was The Sunday Times in 1985. Two years later we won the election with a majority of 100.

Mr. Conway : Is my right hon. Friend feeling cheerful, because he should? Is it not the case that we have every reason to be optimistic because, of all the countries that pulled out of the exchange rate mechanism last autumn, the United Kingdom is the only country to have pulled out of recession?

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