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House of Commons

Tuesday 1 February 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Bill

Sheffield Assay Office Bill

Federation of Street Traders Union (London Local Authorities Act 1990) (Amendment) Bill

University of London Bill

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time upon Thursday 3 February.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Student Grants

1. Mr. McAvoy : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received about the changes in provision of student grants ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Canavan : To ask the Secretary of State for Education, how many representations he has received about student grants following the Budget statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : My right hon. Friend and I have received about 1,275 representations to date.

Mr. McAvoy : Does the Minister realise that, if the delegation of extreme right-wing Tory MPs to the Prime Minister gets its way, this may be the last occasion that he has the benefit of the company of the Secretary of State for Education? Does he accept that the cut in student grants to the tune of 10 per cent. in each of the next three years will result in students either applying for a loan or having to give up their studies? Will he admit that the Government have cut 10, 000 places from higher education in the next academic year, and are trying to restrict expansion in higher education by putting financial restrictions in the way of potential students?

Mr. Boswell : If the hon. Gentleman is as prolix as that, he will put his place at some risk. As we debated extensively in the House in response to a prayer from the Liberal Democrats a fortnight ago, the answer is that we have a record participation in higher education, and we shall continue that percentage. Incidentally, it is twice as great as it was in 1988. During that period, when we made a progressive switch from grant to loan in the burden of support, the number of students and the participation of young people doubled.

Mr. Pawsey : I hope that my hon. Friend will ignore the ill- considered remarks of the hon. Member for Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy). Given the fact that we now have a record number of students in advanced education, does my hon. Friend agree that it is grossly unreasonable to expect taxpayers to fund the total cost of student support, and that the action being taken to bring grants and loans towards equilibrium is entirely right? It certainly underlines the dichotomy that exists on the Labour Benches about taxation and funding for students.

Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) is entirely right. His view and mine is shared by the Royal Society, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and what I might call the lightly suppressed members of the Labour party. We cannot will the end of higher participation in education and, at the same time, not be prepared to tackle funding, which we are doing.

Dr. Wright : Is the Minister aware that his policy on student support and, indeed, the funding of higher education generally has effectively collapsed? It is now

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being made by the Treasury, not by his Department. It is causing massive hardship to students, and it is making it impossible for universities to plan. When will the Government come forward with a properly funded plan for the expansion of higher education and a plan for student support to go with it?

Mr. Boswell : I warn the hon. Gentleman that the taxi meter on Labour commitments is ticking away faster than ever. The fact that there are 1 million full-time students is not a failure of policy. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to tell the House when there were anything like 1 million full-time students under the Labour Government.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we were to attempt to fund the hugely increased number of students--the proportion has gone up from one in eight to one in three--the taxpayer could not stand it? Therefore, we would have to reduce it to a small number. Is that not an elitist policy on the part of the Opposition?

Mr. Boswell : As ever, my hon. Friend is entirely right : they are elitists on the Labour Benches. We are delivering a mass and popular participation in higher education on a scale never contemplated by the Labour party. What is more, in conjunction with our friends in the Treasury, we are finding a proper and fair balance of financing to do so.

Mr. Skinner rose--

Hon. Members : Ruskin college, Oxford.

Mr. Skinner : When I went for three months to Ruskin, the students I went with got grants. They did not have to rely on loans, and some of us got the grants from the trade union movement.

Why does not the Minister admit that the system has been a total failure, with £376 million being spent on loans and only £5 million being paid back, while the system is costing £11 million to administer? Is not one of the reasons why students cannot pay the money back because most of them cannot get jobs in the tinpot Britain run by this Government?

Mr. Boswell : I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman said that he received a mandatory award for his brief sojourn at Oxford university. He certainly has a PhD in ranting. Every single figure given by the hon. Gentleman is wrong, and last year the additional student numbers of over 70,000 were equivalent to six new universities. Where is the elitism there?

Grant-maintained Status

2. Mr. Gill : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what are the financial benefits of grant-maintained status.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : The key benefit is that the school controls 100 per cent. of its budget. Decisions can be taken quickly by those who know and care most about the needs of the school. Self-government enables schools to get good value for money and to spend that money where it really counts : in the classroom, on children.

Mr. Gill : In the light of that answer, and given the fact that there is far greater motivation in grant-maintained

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schools among both pupils and staff, does my right hon. Friend agree that most of the lingering opposition to grant- maintained status is purely ideological?

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend is absolutely right and, happily, there is no ideological opposition in my hon. Friend's county of Shropshire, where 11 schools were balloted on grant-maintained status and all resulted in overwhelming yes votes.

Mr. Steinberg : Despite the blatant bribes that the Government have made to opt-out schools, and despite the vast amounts of money that have been spent on advertising opt-out schools, the policy is a failure. [Hon. Members :-- "Question."] The previous Secretary of State for Education told us that there would be an avalanche--

Hon. Members : Question.

Madam Speaker : Order. I must have a question from the hon. Gentleman. It is Question Time, after all.

Mr. Steinberg : The previous Secretary of State told us that there would be an avalanche of schools opting out. That has not happened. [Hon. Members :-- "Question."] Is the Secretary of State aware that, in my constituency, not one school has opted out? Will he give an assurance that he will continue the ballots for opting out, and that he will not force schools, in particular, secondary schools, to opt out without a parental ballot?

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman does not give good value to the National Union of Teachers for its sponsorship. He cannot even ask a proper joined-up question without prompting from you, Madam Speaker. We have no intention of changing during this Parliament our general election pledge on the conduct of balloting for grant-maintained schools. I am happy to tell the House that, today, some 530,000 children are being educated in grant- maintained schools--that is about 16 or 17 per cent. of secondary school children. It is a popular and progressive policy.

Mr. Haselhurst : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the financial disbenefits which are beginning to creep in for grant-maintained schools? Local authorities that are dominated by the Labour party and by the Liberal Democrat party are starting to take retaliatory action against them. Is that not typified by Essex county council, which is proposing to withdraw-- almost at point blank notice--the boarding allowance for Hockerhill school in Bishops Stortford?

Mr. Patten : That is a disgraceful act ; it is typical of the dirty tricks of Lib-Lab councils up and down the land. Only yesterday afternoon I saw one of my hon. Friend's county council colleagues to complain about exactly that practice in Essex, and only last Friday, when I made a state visit to Swindon, I heard similar complaints from councillors and teachers at grant-maintained schools there about the actions of the Lib-Lab pact in campaigning viciously and untruthfully not only against grant-maintained schools but against denominational schools. I bet that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) does not realise that her friends in Swindon want to stop denominational schooling in Wiltshire, which is a disgrace.

Mr. Don Foster : Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, in the current advertising campaign--

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paid for by taxpayers' money--to advocate grant-maintained status for schools, one of the advertisements for Hatchford school states that that grant-maintained school has been able to reallocate its funds for benefits in the classroom? Would it not have been more honest to say that the reallocation has meant that £68,000 was taken from neighbouring schools? Does not that demonstrate a clear breach of his departmental guidelines on advertising information about grant- maintained schools?

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong--the advertisements contain factual information only. There is a level playing field. There are many differences between grant-maintained schools and maintained schools in terms of how they get their money, whether they have to pay value added tax and whether they can look to the county council or the local education authority to vire money from other capital programmes to capital programmes for grant-maintained schools. The hon. Gentleman must brief himself a bit better. Unless he is careful, I shall pay a state visit to Bath and deal with him.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are equal proportions of able, disadvantaged and poor children in grant- maintained schools and state schools, and that, when the Labour party continually attacks those schools, it is attacking poor and disadvantaged children--and it does not care?

Mr. Patten : I do not think that the Labour party has had an original idea in 15 wasted years in opposition. It has not advanced educational thinking one iota. My hon. Friend, with his long experience as a deputy head teacher, is right : our comprehensive grant-maintained schools, which are the majority, produce very strong results with children from all backgrounds.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Does the Secretary of State realise that parents and school governors, as well as some Conservative councillors, have rumbled him and now realise that the rewards to grant-maintained schools for their political correctness are running out? Will he confirm that two out of three grant-maintained schools have not received any capital allocation whatsoever for the year 1994-95, and that the abolition of cash protection for GM schools means that they will lose £8.2 million in annual maintenance grants? As it is now obvious that Government targets for GM schools will not be reached, will the Secretary of State tell us whether that is why he is threatening to nationalise all secondary schools? What does that say about his respect for parent power--or is he just a bad loser?

Mr. Patten : I do not know how the hon. Lady manages to speak with such apparent authority about grant-maintained schools. I understand--I will of course be corrected if I am wrong--that she has never visited one.

Mrs. Taylor : Yes, I have.

Mr. Patten : I am very sorry. I understood that she had not. I am glad that the hon. Lady has done so, because I would not like those on the Labour Front Bench to carry out a policy of educational apartheid by trying to marginalise grant-maintained schools. The hon. Lady really cannot criticise a policy of devolving power to parents, which is admired in most of the western world and is one of the most original of our policies of the past 15 years, when, over the same period,

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there has been no original thinking on education policy from her or her hon. Friends--15 wasted years. If the hon. Lady were subjected to an educational brain scan, there would not be a flicker on the screen.

A-level Results

3. Sir David Madel : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what conclusions his Department has drawn from the A-level results in England in 1993 ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Robin Squire) : The 1993 results confirmed that GCE A-levels are popular and successful qualifications. More of our young people are taking them, more are passing them, and more are getting good grades than ever before. The recent report by the Office for Standards in Education has confirmed their reputation for quality and rigour.

Sir David Madel : Are the Government considering changes in the A- level system in view of the fact that the number of candidates for science subjects dropped in 1993, and that both Government and industry are keen that many more people should have A-levels in science and then go on to university?

Mr. Squire : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. With his wide educational knowledge, he knows that, under the national curriculum, all young people are now required to take maths and science until the age of 16. Many of us trust that that will ensure that more students come to recognise that those subjects are neither boring nor, worse, only for boys- -some of the myths that are spread. In due course, that will ensure that a greater number carry on to post-16 studies, whether via A-levels or via the new vocational qualifications.


4. Mr. Devlin : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many university undergraduates there are in England and Wales.

Mr. Boswell : The Government's policies have led to record student numbers and participation in higher education. There were some 755, 000 undergraduates studying in England in 1992-93, the latest year for which figures are available. Figures for Wales are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

Mr. Devlin : Does not that significant increase in the number of people studying at our universities show how wrong people were three or four years ago to argue that the introduction of student loans would mean a decline in the number of people applying to go to university? Is it not a welcome feature, and a real achievement of the Government, to have got so many talented young people into higher education, including at the two new universities on Teesside?

Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend is entirely right. I recognise the role of the two new universities on Teesside. Since 1988, the proportion of young people entering higher education has risen from 15 per cent. to more than 30 per cent.

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Mr. Rooker : Notwithstanding the increase--the equivalent of a dozen or more civic universities in recent years--achieved by craimming students into existing facilities, is it true that, as a result of the decline in the staff-student ratio in universities, the vice-chancellors were warned privately by Ministers not to speak up about threats to quality because that would cause further problems with the Treasury?

Mr. Boswell : The hon. Gentleman seems to have had some problems with his own party. We have no problems with the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals. We are currently engaged in debating issues of quality. My right hon. Friend and I are determined to assert higher quality, and we shall see some of the vice-chancellors and principals this afternoon at 4 o'clock.

Mr. David Nicholson : My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the need for a balance between the cost to students and their families and to the taxpayer, and the point about student numbers. Will he continue to emphasise the lessons to be learned from international comparisons in funding in that respect? Will he also pay attention to the use and administration of access funds and, in conjunction with this colleagues in the Department of Social Security, to support for students during the long vacation in the recession, when many have been unable to find jobs?

Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend will know that we decided, at the time of the introduction of student loans, to discontinue the general pattern of students' access to benefits. We did that alongside an increase in the funding package, which amounts to approximately one third extra for students who avail themselves of a loan. We continue to take account and careful note of authoritative studies on any student financial problems, and we recently reflected that with an increase of some £2 million in the sum provided for access funds in higher education for the coming year.

Mr. Bryan Davies : Will the Minister come clean with the House and the country and confirm that he has been trying to get higher education on the cheap? Is it not the case that, thanks to Treasury diktats, next year 10,000 fully qualified intending students, who are as well qualified as those who went into higher education this year, will be denied a place because of his policies?

Mr. Boswell : Once again, the taxi meter is ticking, and my hon. Friends will be taking careful note of it. The participation of young people in higher education is at record levels, and the numbers will remain at records levels over the next three years. I regard that as a success and, if anything, a compliment to the Treasury and to my colleagues, because we have achieved it, whereas the hon. Gentleman has yet to answer the question I recently put to him. How does he propose to pay for whatever he proposes to do, which he will not tell us?

Nursery Education

5. Sir David Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on nursery education.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : The Government's policy is t

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promote choice, diversity, quality and cost- effectiveness of pre-school provision in the poublic and private sectors. More than 90 per cent. of three and four year-olds now receive some form of provision--more than half of them in maintained nursery and primary schools. We are now exploring ways of adding still further, as resources allow, to the choice parents have.

Sir David Knox : Is my hon. Friend aware that, although there is excellent provision for nursery education in Stoke-on-Trent, there is virtually none in the rest of Staffordshire? Does he consider that fair?

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend knows well that the extent and nature of provision is entirely a matter for the local education authority. I should have thought that his local education authority would find it extremely difficult to justify its position to its electorate if its provision of nursery education were unevenly and unfairly distributed, as my hon. Friend suggests.

Ms Estelle Morris : Does the Minister realise that he has just made it clear that the Government do not seem to want to adopt a policy on nursery education? Does he accept that that attitude has left Britain at the bottom of the European league of nursery education providers? Is he happy with a policy under which whether one's child gets nursery education depends on where one lives and not on the child's needs? When will he ensure that young children in Tory areas get as good access to nursery education as those in Labour Walsall, Cleveland and Birmingham?

Mr. Forth : I wonder which of the hon. Lady's colleagues she agrees with? Would it be the Labour conference in 1993, which said : "nursery education to be available as of right to children from the age of four"?

Or does she agree with the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) on the Labour Front Bench who said about a year ago

"The Labour party is, and always has been, committed to pre-school provision"?

Or does she agree with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) who said on radio just the other day :

"there are no manifesto commitments at this stage there is no commitment to spend money on anything"?

It is time that Labour Members came clean.

Mr. Evennett : Does my hon. Friend agree that we should have choice and diversity in the provision of pre-school education? Does he further agree that we should congratulate the work of the Pre-School Playgroups Association, which does a tremendous amount of good work for children throughout the country? The Opposition never acknowledge that good work.

Mr. Forth : I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is part of the hidden agenda of Labour Members. By implying that they will extend mandatory provision for pre-fives but not telling us how they would pay for it, they are threatening the existence of the excellent pre-school playgroup movement to which my hon. Friend alluded. We acknowledge the excellence of that provision and want to promote continued choice and diversity for children up and down the country.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the Minister tell us--calmly, if he can-- whether the Secretary of State ever speaks to the Prime Minister? If so, can he clear up the Government's shambles on nursery education? Last year, the junior

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Minister said that I had an obsession with nursery education. As the Prime Minister now says that he is mad keen on nursery education, will the Minister clear up the confusion in the Conservative party and tell us, yes or no : do Education Ministers back the Prime Minister? Do they favour universal nursery education?

Mr. Forth : I think that the House will be much more interested in knowing whether--[ Hon. Members :-- "Answer."] I will answer--the hon. Lady's colleague, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), shares her obsession with nursery education. From what I said a moment ago, it would appear that he does not. The direct answer to the hon. Lady's question is this. In an excellent speech to the north of England education conference only a few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said :

"The Prime Minister and I are therefore keen to find ways of helping to extend over time the amount of nursery schooling available."

I hope that that answers the hon. Lady's question.

Dearing Report

6. Mr. John Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what survey his Department has undertaken of the views of classroom teachers on the Dearing report on the national curriculum and testing.

14. Mr. Luff : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what responses he has received to the publication of the Dearing report on the national curriculum and testing.

Mr. Patten : I understand that teachers as well as almost all their associations and unions have since reacted with general enthusiasm for the report's main recommendations. They have, as the House knows, been accepted in full by the Government. I hope that we can continue to raise standards in our schools in the interests of pupils.

Mr. Greenway : From the school visits that I have made in my constituency, it is clear that heads and teachers hold Sir Ron Dearing in the highest possible regard. Given that he had a free hand with his inquiry, which was entirely independent, and that the Government have accepted all his recommendations, what possible justification can there be for any further disruption in our classrooms? Will my right hon. Friend call on the National Union of Teachers to copy the example of other teacher unions and call off the threat of industrial action.?

Mr. Patten : I was a bit surprised to learn that the National Union of Teachers is the only one of the teachers' associations and unions that has not accepted Sir Ron Dearing's report and is still unfortunately thinking of continuing the boycott. That is regrettable in the interests of our children. I hope that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) will make known her views on the stance of the National Union of Teachers and use her best endeavours to ensure that the curricular and testing changes recommended in the report go through smoothly in the interests of precisely the good performance of schools that my hon. Friend has seen in his constituency.

Mr. Luff : Does my right hon. Friend recall that a year ago I had a great deal of sympathy with the concerns, expressed by head teachers in my Worcester constituency, about the way in which we were approaching a national

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curriculum and testing? Is he aware that, a year on, those concerns have been entirely put to rest by the publication of the Dearing report? The report underlines the importance of the national curriculum and effective testing in our schools. Against that background, will he ensure that his Department follows, to the letter and the spirit, the report in the coming months and years?

Mr. Patten : Yes, I have accepted the report's recommendations in full. They have gone down very well in the classroom, as I saw in a school in Bristol only last Friday afternoon, where I talked to heads and, privately, to trade union members in a number of trade unions. It is an unfortunate reflection on the present state of one of the teachers' associations and unions that it uniquely wishes to continue, perhaps, to boycott testing in our classrooms. I cannot see that that reflects a modern attitude to education. I cannot imagine that a thoroughly modern Labour party would back that sort of action. I hope that the hon. Member for Dewsbury does not.

Mr. Enright : Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the considerable part played by local education authorities in the delivery of the national curriculum? Will he put his mind to considering the report on religious education that was sent to us this morning by his noble Friend the Minister of State and acknowledge that if central funding is taken away from local education authorities, the delivery of the curriculum will be quite impossible?

Mr. Patten : With his long-standing interest in these matters, the hon. Gentleman is probably aware that yesterday my Department issued new guidance to local education authority schools and to grant-maintained schools about the proper conduct of religion education in the classrooms of all state schools, and the critical importance of a daily act of worship and regular assemblies in schools, which, alas, is not taken as seriously in some of our schools as it should be.

Mr. Dafis : I wonder whether His Royal Highness might honour us with a state visit to Wales, in which, having studied the recent report of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, "Towards an Education Policy for Wales", he could speak to the institute about it. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is much validity in the suggestion in that report that we in Wales should be looking beyond England for our standards and for ideas on developing the curriculum in Wales? Will he now ensure that he has a meeting soon with the Secretary of State for Wales to consider ways to strengthen the autonomy of Welsh educational institutions, including the Curriculum Authority for Wales, and other aspects, too?

Mr. Patten : My writ does not run as far as Wales, so I shall not be able to accept the hon. Gentleman's kind invitation and make an official visit ; however, I am prepared to go privately. As for my having discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, ours is a long-standing and close political friendship dating back 20 years. We talk about these great issues most days of the week, and there is not a razor blade's distance between us.

Mr. Lidington : Will my right hon. Friend take careful note of Sir Ron Dearing's comments to the effect that rigorous national testing should remain an integral part of our state education system? While my right hon. Friend

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and his colleagues set about welcoming the Dearing

recommendations--which are indeed welcome, being designed to reduce teacher work loads--will he also ensure that the Government do not lose sight of that important principle?

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend is absolutely right : I agree with all that he has said. I also think that all hon. Members in all political parties should concentrate, in the development of our education policies, on trying especially to help the 40 per cent. of boys and girls--young men and women--who have the greatest difficulty in achieving. It is in that regard that we seem to lag behind too many of our continental, Japanese and north American competitors ; and it is in that connection that testing, based on the national curriculum, is likely to produce results that are not just good for the country and for schools, but good for individual boys and girls.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Let me remind the Secretary of State that all the teacher unions have accepted in the Dearing report those recommendations whose educational content is positive. May I point out that the unions accepted those recommendations because, for the first time, someone who had some influence over the Government had listened to what they had to say? The National Union of Teachers wants to continue teacher assessment, which Sir Ron Dearing says is more important than the tests themselves ; the other two teacher unions want to continue only the tests, not the assessment. If the Secretary of State makes the tests a pilot for this year, he will find that he has everyone behind him.

Mr. Patten : Oh dear, oh dear. That just shows that there are differences between teacher unions and associations--which is perfectly reasonable as they are free agents. It also shows that there are considerable differences and confusions among Labour party members, who cannot give a straight answer. The straightest possible advice has been given by Sir Ron Dearing, not only in his report but in a number of recent statements. He has said--referring directly to the NUT, which he has named- -that national testing should go ahead this summer. If it did not, that would be a terrible slap in the face for him.

Technology College Status

7. Mr. Mans : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many schools have now expressed an interest in obtaining technology college status.

Mr. Patten : There has been a very encouraging level of interest from schools and businesses. More than 200 schools have made inquiries to my Department or the City Technology College Trust on the technology college initiative.

Mr. Mans : Bearing in mind the particular need of industry in my part of Lancashire for training in technology, science and maths, may I ask my right hon. Friend to give special consideration and support to St. Aidan's school in my constituency if it decides to apply for technology college status?

Mr. Patten : Two hundred schools have already shown an interest in acquiring such status. We will certainly

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consider any application from the school in my hon. Friend's constituency, but it had better get a move on : there is a pretty long queue.

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