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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 June 1993

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Citibank International Bill


Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


Nursery Education

1. Mr. Burden : To ask the Secretary of State for Education when he last met the Association of Metropolitan Authorities to discuss the provision of nursery education.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Robin Squire) : No such meeting has been held recently

Mr. Burden : May I welcome the Minister to his new appointment? When all the evidence, even from the Government's own tests, suggests that children perform better if they have received a nursery education, is he not ashamed that Britain is still the bottom of the European league in nursery provision? Will not he admit that the Secretary of State's comments about the so-called Mum's Army are actually more about devaluing the skills of those who teach children in those vital early years and avoiding the investment that is necessary in nursery education?

Mr. Squire : Given the warmth of the first part of the hon. Member's question, I am sorry to disagree so fundamentally with him on the rest. We believe, as we have restated many times, that the very diversity of provision for under-fives remains the best option. It recognises the various needs of children and their parents and makes the best use of what are inevitably limited resources. On the hon. Member's latter point, the recent consultation paper reflects our interests in extending the opportunities for capable people with considerable previous experience of working with young children to train to be early-years teachers.

Mr. Hawkins : May I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his new responsibilities? Is it the case that when the last Labour Government left office only some 69 per cent. of under-fives received some form of pre- school provision, and now the figure is more than 90 per cent? Is not that a powerful confirmation of the progress that the Government have made in nursery education?

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Mr. Squire : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, first, for his kind personal comments and secondly for underlining why the subject is so embarrassing for the Labour party. Labour Members say one thing when in opposition, but they invariably do something else when they are in government.

Mr. Steinberg : Is the Minister aware of the anger among parents and teachers at the proposals for diluting the primary training of teachers? Is he aware that, from an early age and at that early stage, children need professional teachers and not the dilution of the teaching profession? Will he please listen to teachers and parents before he makes a further stupid mistake to add to what the Government have done to education in the past 14 years?

Mr. Squire : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman rejects out of hand proposals that are designed to enhance rather than damage. If I may quote from the Yorkshire Post :

"I think that the professionals should give some thought during the coming weeks to dropping their prejudices and giving people the opportunity to test out the old saying : teachers are born--not made."

That comment was from a lady who is a graduate teacher and is also a playgroup leader.

Special Schools (Testing)

2. Mr. Fabricant : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what consideration he has given to the testing of pupils in special schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : Children with special educational needs should follow the national curriculum and participate in its associated assessment arrangements wherever possible, so that they have access to the same education as other pupils. The School Examinations and Assessment Council has given guidance to schools about ways in which the tests for both seven and 14-year-olds might be modified or adapted for those pupils. It is, however, possible where appropriate to disapply the national curriculum and assessment and testing for pupils with special needs.

I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and his constituent, Mrs. Anne Hardman, head teacher of Queen's Croft school in Lichfield, to discuss these important issues.

Mr. Fabricant : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful answer. However, will he concede that special schools are, by their very nature, special, and so are the children who are taught in them? Will he consider, perhaps at the meeting that we are to have later this month, placing greater emphasis on continual assessment and slightly less emphasis on exam results? But will he continue to press that exam results for all schools, including special schools, should continue to be published for the benefit of parental choice?

Mr. Forth : I certainly agree with my hon. Friend's last point and I emphasise that, whereas it is important that children in all schools, including special schools, are given the maximum opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the curriculum and regular testing, teachers have a great deal of scope to judge to what extent pupils are appropriate for particular testing. In that regard, I should mention the possibility and potential of the national record of achievement, which can be used at the discretion of schools

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and teachers to sum up the achievements of pupils of all kinds from all schools when they have completed their education.

Mr. Spearing : The Minister mentioned the special needs of pupils, some of whom are statemented and some of whom are in special schools, and the need for the adaptation of tests. Does he agree that any reduction in the resources now available to those pupils, whether statemented in ordinary schools or in special schools, will not be approved by Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is important that resources throughout education are properly directed to where they can be best and most effectively used and to those with the greatest need. The mechanisms that we now have and, more importantly, those being developed in the Education Bill in another place, go a long way to doing that. I look forward to the support of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in developing the thoughts and the mechanisms in the Education Bill which will be of enormous benefit, particularly to pupils with special educational needs.

Mr. Alexander : But surely it cannot be right to list the results of pupils in special schools without, at the same time, showing that they come from special schools? What incentive can there be for teachers or pupils if they know that they will be lumped in with everyone else without any recognition of pupils' learning disabilities?

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend makes an important point to which we have given a great deal of thought. It is important to regard schools of all kinds as being well within the education system within which all pupils should be treated even-handedly and fairly. But we have gone some way, and we shall continue to go as far as we can, towards recognising the special nature of special schools and of units within mainstream schools in order to identify how their results can best be treated and reported so as to reflect fairly their special circumstances. That is our intention and we are prepared to continue to consider the matter and to continue to develop the reporting system in order to make it as fair as possible.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Given the Minister's last remarks, will not he admit that there is an insuperable problem here because many children in special schools can be categorised as moving towards level one, even at key stage 1, and that what we really need is some guidance from SEAC on how to develop levels of attainment in the period moving towards level one for which at the moment there are no guidelines? Does not the fact that parents want to know how their own children are doing, not necessarily what is happening in the whole school, underline the foolishness of league tables? This would be a good opportunity for the Minister to announce that league tables are out and more sophisticated ways of assessment are in.

Mr. Forth : There is always a tension between those who ask, as the hon. Gentleman just has, for more sophisticated methods of assessment and those who often complain that the system has become unwieldly and over- bureaucratic. That, among other things, is exactly the problem that Sir Ron Dearing, is considering in his review at the request of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I am conscious of the problem that the hon.

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Gentleman has outlined, but I believe that the arrangements for key stage 1 and the work leading up to it are broadly satisfactory. It is right that we continue to look at the arrangements to see whether they need be and can be improved, but we must be careful not to throw babies, or pupils, out with the bathwater in our eagerness to provide a more sophisticated approach to cover every category of pupil and, in this case perhaps, every individual pupil. We must keep faith with the principle of testing and ensure its integrity.

Student Unions

3. Mr. Riddick : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps he intends to take to reform student unions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : We have already made it clear that we intend to introduce the voluntary principle for student unions. We are currently completing our consultations on the role of campus unions and the National Union of Students, and their use of public funds. In the light of these consultations, we are considering proposals for action which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects to announce very shortly.

Mr. Riddick : I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the vast majority of university students find that they have to belong to a student union, which may do or say some extraordinary things in their name. Should not students have the freedom to decide for themselves whether they wish to belong to a student union? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will take action to give students that freedom of choice?

Mr. Boswell : Yes, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Don Foster : Will the Minister convey to his hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) my congratulations on his first appearance on the Front Bench as an education Minister?

Does not the Minister agree that the growing problems of student hardship, graduate unemployment and the increased need for welfare services should be a far higher priority for him to tackle in higher education than the partly political--I cannot speak today, Madam Speaker--the party-politically motivated attacks by the Conservative party on individual student unions?

Mr. Boswell : The hon. Gentleman may not be able to speak today, but he can whinge, and that he has done. I am surprised by what he has said : he gives no credit for our recent publication of the draft further and higher education charters, which are designed to give new rights and an information revolution to students. I am surprised that he did not acknowledge the huge increase in the total amount of student support which has been achieved through the success of the student loan scheme--which has even been acknowledged by The Times. I am also surprised that he did not acknowledge the 46 per cent. increase in student numbers over the past four years.

Mr. John Marshall : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the system of student support in the United Kingdom is more generous than that of any other country in the European Community? Will he further confirm that since

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student loans were introduced there has been an increase rather than a decrease in the numbers applying for higher education?

Madam Speaker : Order. The question relates to student unions, not the support of students.

Mr. John Marshall : Those who apply for higher education then have a right to join a student union.

Madam Speaker : Order. I am very tolerant generally, but the hon. Gentleman was out of order.

Mr. Rooker : Will the Minister confirm that for the overwhelming majority of student unions the amount of public support for their activities is sometimes only one fifth or one sixth of their total expenditure? Will the Minister join me in welcoming the work of student unions in welfare, counselling and job finding? Will he take it from me that, having made nearly 20 visits to universities this year, I found that not one Vice-Chancellor had a bad word to say about the running of the student union in his university? Given the obvious stress that many students are under and the many tragedies that we have read and heard about this year, should not this work be better supported? Would not the Minister do better to ignore the bile and spite from the duds on the Conservative Back Benches, and take a positive view and give a firm commitment that the Government will not publish consultation papers during either the recess of the House or that of the universities?

Mr. Boswell : The hon. Gentleman seems to have got out of bed on the wrong side today. I am surprised at the language he has used. I am equally surprised at his apparent wilful failure to recognise the importance of the principle of voluntary membership, the importance of proper accountability for public funds and, not least, the vital importance of avoiding victimisation of individuals. The hon. Gentleman, in his consultations, may not have heard about some of the things that have taken place in the past. If he has heard about them, I hope that he will not condone them. In return, I will concede one point : we recognise through our consultations the importance of proper services for students, and our proposals, when they are announced, will reflect that fact.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Will my hon. Friend confirm that a great deal of money could be saved if paid student sabbaticals for officers of student unions were ended and if the presidents of student unions did that job without pay or a sabbatical, as they always used to?

Mr. Boswell : I recall that in the days when I was a president of my college junior common room I received no remuneration for it. That should essentially be a matter for the student union and the institution. I have heard my hon. Friend's trenchant comments and I can assure him that the voluntary principle will make these matters much more accountable to the student body as a whole.

Primary Schools (Class Sizes)

4. Mr. Byers : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what was the percentage change in the number of primary schoolchildren being taught in classes of more than 40 between 1991 and 1992.

Mr. Forth : Twenty-four.

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Mr. Byers : Is the Minister concerned that there has been a 24 per cent. increase in just one year in the number of primary school children being taught in classes of more than 40 and that thousands of primary school children are in that position? Will the Minister accept that, at a time of rising primary school population, we will need to employ more teachers to stop things getting even worse? Can he tell the House whether the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is likely to agree to such extra spending? Will he accept that when a teacher stands before a class of 40 10 -year-olds, one is talking not about a valuable learning process but crowd control?

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman is making heavy weather of this. Yes, the figure has gone from rather a few to very few, but we are talking about 225 classes out of 137,000, or 11 pupils out of more than 3.5 million. That gives the House some idea of the proportions. The reality is that most of those classes are not representative even of the schools that reported them. The interesting point is that, at the same time, those schools also have one or more small classes. It must be a matter, rightly, for schools and authorities to decide the distribution of their teaching resources within schools. That is where the decision should be made. I am satisfied that the resources are there for class sizes. The average primary class size now is 26.4 pupils compared with 25.9 as long ago as 1979. It is not a cause for the sort of concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed.

Mr. Pawsey : The concern expressed by the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) about children and class sizes would carry more weight if he would join Conservative Members in condemning the irresponsible acts of trade unions in boycotting tests.

Mr. Forth : That must be the case. We are concerned consistently with achieving and maintaining the highest possible standards in education. I sometimes wonder whether Opposition Members share that concern, given the fact that even now we believe, but we are not sure, that many Opposition Members supported the teachers' boycott. I should be glad to hear that confirmed by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman today.

Mr. Jamieson : Is the Minister aware that the implication of an answer that he gave recently to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) is that there are 500,000 children in state schools in this country in classes of 41 or more? Has the Minister had time to read an article by David Woodhead, who is a national director of the Independent Schools Information Service? He says

Madam Speaker : Order. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to quote directly during Question Time.

Mr. Jamieson : Has the Minister had time to read the article in this magazine-- [Hon. Members :-- "Which one?"] The magazine from the Independent Schools Information Service. Will the Minister note that the article says quite clearly that the size of classes is important for children's education? Is the Minister saying that Mr. Woodhead is wrong or right?

Mr. Forth : The original premise of the hon. Gentleman's question was wrong ; and not yet.

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Grant-maintained Schools

5. Dr. Goodson-Wickes : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment has been made of the advice given to head teachers by local education authorities in relation to ballots on grant-maintained status for schools.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : I am not aware of any general advice given to head teachers by local education authorities in relation to ballots on self-governing status. I am aware, however, that Merton LEA has written to heads, telling them that they owe what is referred to as "a duty of loyalty" to their employer and suggesting that to be seen actively to be in conflict with the policies of their employer would put an employee at risk of breaching that obligation. That is nonsense.

I deplore action from any quarter that might be construed as intimidating heads, deputy heads or teachers or as muzzling their freedom of expression.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes : Will my right hon. Friend recognise that there is all the difference in the world between impartial advice issued by local authorities to head teachers and the flagrant political pressure, to which he referred, from Labour councils such as Merton, implying that loyalty to the authority takes precedence over choice for parents and pupils?

Mr. Patten : The decision whether to go for grant-maintained status is one for governors and parents. It is undoubtedly their choice, not one for the local education authority. I hope that the London borough of Merton will soon join London boroughs such as Wandsworth, Sutton and Hillingdon, half of whose secondary pupils are already being educated in grant- maintained schools. That is the future for Merton and boroughs like it.

Ms Short : Will the Secretary of State also deplore the actions of teachers organising opt-out ballots who intimidate and pressurise children to get their parents to vote as those teachers require? What view does he take of schools organising opt-out ballots when they have a massive over- provision of places, as in the case of George Dixon school in my constituency which is chosen by very few parents, in order to prevent Birmingham rationalising its over-provision of places?

Mr. Patten : The way in which Birmingham local education authority treated the head of the school during the ballot to which the hon. Lady referred was absolutely disgraceful. That is why in the Education Bill presently in another place we have moved swiftly to ensure that there is a level playing field so that both sides can put their arguments fairly about whether a school should become grant maintained. More than 900 schools have now voted yes to grant-maintained status, and about 350,000 pupils are already being educated in grant-maintained schools in England as a whole.

Mr. Dunn : Given that local education authorities controlled by Opposition socialist parties are declaring their hostility to the concept of grant-maintained status, is not it time that we introduced legislation to require schools to opt in to local education authority control instead of opting out?

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Mr. Patten : We have done so in an amendment to the Education Bill. My hon. Friend is a stalwart supporter of grant-maintained schools and he will know that the Bill will ensure that every school in the land shall once a year consider whether to go for grant-maintained status. It is very important that every year governors give parents the opportunity to vote in favour of grant-maintained status.

Dr. Wright : Would the Minister like to congratulate the parents at the Church of England primary school attended by my children who yesterday discovered that they had succeeded overwhelmingly in rejecting grant- maintained status? Will he further admit that the exercise of balloting in such primary schools is a monstrous waste of time for head teachers, teachers and parents and that it is causing discord and division throughout the school community? Will he now get on with the education tasks in hand?

Mr. Patten : As I said, some 900 schools have voted yes to grant- maintained status. It is a right of parents to vote in favour. Since the process began, eight out of 10 schools in which ballots are held vote firmly in favour of grant-maintained status.

Further and Higher Education

6. Mr. Jenkin : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what targets the Government have set for the number of students entering further and higher education by the end of the decade.

Mr. Boswell : The public expenditure plans announced by my right hon. Friend last November assumed that the proportion of young people entering higher education--which is now well over one in four--would remain broadly constant over the next three years. The plans also provided for the number of students in further education to increase by 25 per cent. over the next three years.

Mr. Jenkin : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. Will he confirm that he intends to ensure that any reduction in tuition fees that a particular institution may suffer will be matched by an increase in the block grant and will he assure the House that he does not intend the process of consolidation in pupil numbers to put undue strain on institutions such as the university of Essex, in my constituency, which have hitherto planned for growth?

Mr. Boswell : I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He will appreciate that we operate through the funding councils in the several countries of the United Kingdom, but I can confirm that, in making their funding dispositions, those bodies have had regard to the need for stability of the individual institutions. I also confirm that reductions in tuition fees for band 1 students have been exactly matched by an increase in the overall block grant. What is happening represents no more than a reorganisation of the system of payment to deal with the problems where students are taken on at the margin.

Mr. Bryan Davies : But does the Secretary of State accept that unless there is a change of Government--for which the country hopes and yearns--by the end of the decade, students at that time will be able to look forward to pursuing their courses in poverty in order to train for a life of poverty and unemployment under a Tory Administration, as present students do?

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Mr. Boswell : All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman, who goes back quite a long way, is that he might examine the record of the Labour Government, which he will remember. The fact is that the real amount of money available to the individual student--the total resources--is exactly comparable with what was available when the Government came to power in 1979. Since then, student numbers have risen from one in eight of the population to between one in three and one in four. The hon. Gentleman may want to be an elitist, but I do not. We are offering higher education to a greater proportion of our young people than have ever taken part in it ; that will be of great value to the nation and will stand young people in good stead in their future careers.

Education Reforms

7. Mr. Patrick Thompson : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans he has to visit schools in Norwich to discuss education reforms.

Mr. Patten : My ministerial colleagues and I have visited more than 120 schools since taking office.

I and other Ministers from the Department are continuing our programme of visits to schools across England to hear the views of teachers and governors at first hand and we hope that this programme may include Norwich in due course. It is an oversight that we have not been there yet.

Mr. Thompson : When my right hon. Friend has the opportunity to visit Norwich, he will find approval for his determination to reform teacher training, a reform which has been long overdue since some of the trendy nostrums of the 1960s and beyond. His emphasis on subject knowledge, on practical skills and on discipline in the classroom must be the right way forward. Does my right hon. Friend also accept the need for particular emphasis on the training of primary school teachers, as their job is in many respects difficult, challenging and possibly undervalued?

Mr. Patten : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I respect his views because, as I remember, he was a classroom teacher for more than 20 years. The reforms proposed for initial primary teacher training in the consultation document issued last week concentrate on a number of important things. The first is the need for less theory and more practice ; the second is to ensure that student teachers spend more time concentrating on the basic core subjects ; the third is to ensure that they are given much more help in maintaining discipline in the classroom.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : When the Secretary of State is discussing the so- called reforms in Norwich or elsewhere, will he apologise for his appalling proposals to dilute the professionalism of teachers in our schools by introducing a semi-trained mums' army? That proposal is again uniting parents and teachers against the Government. Does not the Secretary of State recognise the critical importance of education in the early years and the fact that if things go wrong at that stage they may never be put right? Does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the highest possible level of professionalism is required for the unique responsibility of introducing our children to formal education? Is he really seeking more confrontation?

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Mr. Patten : That was a laundry list of complaints. With regard to the consultation document, the hon. Lady has overlooked entirely that we wish to bring into the profession a greater diversity of people from a wider range of backgrounds, including parents, who have experience in dealing with and educating young children. Many parents who wish to help with the teaching of five to seven-year-olds have good-quality A-levels and much experience in bringing up children. It is exactly such people that we want to bring into primary teaching.

Staying-on Rates

8. Sir Michael Neubert : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on staying-on rates at 16 years.

Mr. Boswell : I greatly welcome the increase in the participation rate of 16-year-olds in schools and colleges--up to 80 per cent. in the current year in England, compared with 56 per cent. in 1979-80. Our expenditure plans for further education will give a further substantial boost to participation, lifting us towards the top of the international league table in staying-on rates for 16 to 19-year-olds within the next three years.

Sir Michael Neubert : Is my hon. Friend aware that, as a result of this welce circumstances, would not it be good sense to allow the grant- maintained Frances Bardsley girls' school in my constituency to keep its sixth form and, at the same time, maintain diversity of parental choice, including the opportunity of single-sex education for girls up to the age of 18?

Mr. Boswell : I can confirm that all Ministers in my Department are interested in the great themes of diversity, choice and quality in the provision of education in schools and colleges just as much after the age of 16 as before the compulsory leaving age. My hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment on the specific set of proposals concerning the Frances Bardsley school, but I will ensure that these are carefully considered by my right hon. Friend. Of course, any representations made by my hon. Friend, or by any other hon. Member or interested party, will be considered most closely.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Is not the sight of the Minister preening himself while firmly burying his head in the ground intriguing? Why does he not address the facts? According to the Audit Commission, between 30 and 40 per cent. of 16-year-olds who entered further education courses this year will not succeed and fewer than two in five of our 18-year-olds are still in education. By any measure, Britain lags behind the rest of the industrialised world. What does the Minister intend to do about it?

Mr. Boswell : I might start by giving the hon. Gentleman some basic knowledge of anatomy. It would be quite difficult for even the highly skilled team on this Bench to preen themselves while burying their heads in the sand. However, I shall leave aside that minor infelicity and deal with the substance of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I have said that we are by no means happy with the level of drop-out from further education or other post-16 provision or with the

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educational standards of those involved in that process. We are very grateful to those, including the adult literacy and basic skills unit, who have helped to expose the deficiencies. We are anxious to repair those deficiencies, just as we are tackling the staying- on rate, to which I have referred. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will support our proposals for the national curriculum and the testing regime, as the deficiencies should be tackled at source and not left to the stage of post-16 provision.

Mr. Devlin : Is not it the case that, hand in hand with the increased staying-on rate at age 16 goes the 35 per cent. increase in the number of students attaining a first degree in the past 10 years? Is not that a truly tremendous achievement, brought about by the Government and something which deserves praise at every turn?

Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend is entirely right ; it is a great achievement and deserves praise, although it rarely gets it from the Opposition.

Grant-maintained Schools

9. Mr. Beith : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many staff in his Department he intends shall be mainly occupied in dealing with grant-maintained schools ; and where they will be located.

Mr. Robin Squire : There are currently 145 Department staff dealing mainly with grant-maintained schools policy, of whom around 95 are based in Darlington and the remainder in London. The total is likely to increase to some 250 to 300, with most of the increase taking place in Darlington and York, before the transfer of certain responsibilities to the Funding Agency for Schools in April 1994. Thereafter, Department for Education staffing will reduce.

Mr. Beith : But is not what is being built up here--in the Department and then the funding agency--just another bureaucracy, which will be further away from the schools, which is not accountable to the local electorate and which schools have no opportunity to opt back out of? Does the Minister agree that it is not therefore so surprising that the large majority of schools show no sign of wanting to go for grant- maintained status and prefer to stick with the devil they know?

Mr. Squire : As the right hon. Gentleman has already heard from the Dispatch Box this afternoon, the number of schools applying is nearing 1,000 and we expect that figure to be reached before the end of the year. Let me make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that grant-maintained schools are self-governing and are not run from Whitehall. More important, those schools, by their very nature, are bringing decisions closer to parents, teachers and local people. I am surprised that a party that used to claim that it was in favour of developing power is now so opposed to the concept.

Mrs. Lait : Does my hon. Friend agree that some special schools such as George Rainey school in my constituency would benefit from grant- maintained status as set out in the Education Bill that is now in the other place? Will he assure me that staff at the Department for Education and

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the Funding Agency for Schools will do everything in their power to help those schools to opt out in the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves?

Mr. Squire : My hon. Friend will understand if I say that all cases will be assessed on their merits. I am certain that most schools in the country would benefit from moving to grant-maintained status, as those that have already done it have found.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : How many officials in the Department will be involved in allocating budget for grant-maintained schools? Is the Minister aware that one of the consequences of schools opting into centralised control is that some grant-maintained schools still do not know their budget for the current financial year and therefore cannot plan staffing levels of curriculum development? Is not it a sign of the Government's incompetence that grant-maintained schools have to complain to the Labour party that this Government cannot set their budget properly?

Mr. Squire : The only thing that the House is awaiting from the hon. Lady is a clear statement of her party's attitude to grant-maintained schools. We heard at the last election that she planned to abolish them. It will be interesting to discover whether we have to wait another couple of years to find out whether that will still be Labour's policy at the next election.

Mr. Bellingham : Is the Minister aware that, in the past few weeks, I have visited a number of grant-maintained schools in my constituency and that all of them pointed out to me the fact that the service that they were receiving from the GMS unit at Darlington was absolutely first-class--that nothing was too much effort for it? Will my hon. Friend ignore the nonsense spoken by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and pass on our gratitude to his officials?

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