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House of Commons

Tuesday 1 March 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


Madam Speaker : I regret to have to inform the House of the death of Ron Leighton, esquire, Member for Newham, North-East, and I desire, on behalf of the House, to express our sense of the loss we have sustained and our sympathy with the relatives of the hon. Member.

Oral Answers to Questions


Truancy --

1. Mr. Heald : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps he has taken to crack down on truancy following the publication of truancy levels in the recent school performance tables.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : My right hon. Friend recently announced a £14 million programme in 1994-95 to help schools and the wider community fight truancy. Eighty- six English local education authorities successfully applied for funds as part of the grants for education support and training--GEST--scheme. A similar programme has been supporting expenditure of some £9.6 million in 1993-94 on schemes proposed by 71 local education authorities.

Mr. Heald : I welcome that reply, but does my right hon. Friend-- sorry, my hon. Friend accept that the educational and social consequences of truancy are disastrous for young people ? Will he take even more action, first by encouraging the Office for Standards in Education to ensure that the figures submitted by schools are accurate and, secondly, by ensuring that local education authorities employ sufficient educational welfare officers to enforce the provisions ?

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend's second point is a matter for local education authorities, but I hope that the publication of truancy figures which we began this year will concentrate their minds sufficiently to deal with the problem properly. Ofsted will indeed be seeking to ensure that the returns produced by schools on truancy are correct. We must ensure that all young people of school age are in school where they should be, not only so that they are educated but so that they are kept out of trouble. Those who are not in school when they should be are likely to be getting into trouble, perhaps being pursued by drug pushers or becoming involved in petty crime. Truancy is unacceptable and we must stamp it out.

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Mr. Pope : Is the Minister aware of the problems caused by people posing as social workers in order to gain access to children ? Will he accept that schemes such as Truancy Watch are nothing but a gimmick, and a dangerous gimmick at that, and that, if the Government were serious about combating truancy, they would invest in more educational welfare officers and in better training and qualifications for them ?

Mr. Forth : I am glad to say that that rather pathetic and disgraceful point of view is not shared by the Labour local education authorities which are queuing up to participate in the imaginative Truancy Watch scheme. The hon. Gentleman has apparently taken no account of the fact that in the area that pioneered the scheme juvenile crime during school hours has dropped by 50 per cent. in the first few months of the scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider his attitude because it will not gain him any friends.

2. Lady Olga Maitland : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received regarding Truancy Watch.

Mr. Forth : One hundred and one schemes were suggested by local education authorities for inclusion in the 1994-95 truancy and disaffected pupils GEST programme. Half the 86 approved schemes include a Truancy Watch element along the lines of a pilot scheme currently operating in Staffordshire. A number of senior police officers and representatives of the business community have welcomed these schemes.

Lady Olga Maitland : May I give a warm welcome to what is clearly a very successful start for Truancy Watch ? Is my hon. Friend aware that, as a result of the pilot scheme, juvenile crime has dropped by half ? Does he agree that it is absolutely disgraceful that the civil rights organisation, Liberty, is telling children to stand up for their rights and ignore police requests to return to school ? Should not children be in school, learning right from wrong and learning to respect authority, rather than cocking a snook at it ?

Mr. Forth : It would be tempting to dismiss Liberty as a bunch of eccentric mischief-makers if what it was saying was not so serious. To encourage young people to stay away from school when they should be in school is a social scandal about which I hope the organisation is thoroughly apologetic. I hope that it will reconsider its advice, which does not reflect the widespread concern that I know exists about truancy. I am glad to say that most local education authorities are now very concerned about the problem, as evidenced by the number that have come forward with imaginative ideas to participate in my right hon. Friend's scheme, which is offering £14 million. I hope that everyone will co-operate in reducing truancy across the country.

Mr. Bradley : Will the Minister explain why, despite the success of truancy schemes in Manchester, no resources have been allocated to such schemes for the next financial year ?

Mr. Forth : Yes. They produced a rotten bid.

Mr. Lord : Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to reduce truancy is to make schools more attractive to pupils ? May I urge him and the Secretary of State to

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reconsider the proposal to make team games compulsory, especially in secondary schools ? Does he agree that team games are enjoyed enormously by most pupils and that even those who may not at first think that they would enjoy them often do so once they are involved ?

Mr. Forth : Yes, the importance of team games is very much recognised by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister and by the Government as a whole. For precisely the reason that my hon. Friend has given, we must find the best and most satisfactory way of ensuring that everybody connected with schools--teachers, governors and pupils--is involved as far as possible in team games and in all other kinds of sport. I have great confidence that that will happen in future.

Higher Education --

4. Mr. Hicks : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many students were undertaking courses of higher education 10 years ago and at the latest available date ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : We need high take-up of appropriate andemanding vocational qualifications in the next three years if we are to achieve the challenging national targets for education and training. Our aim is that one in four 16-year-olds should be starting general national vocational qualification courses in 1996. Our longer-term aim is for half of all 16 and 17-year-olds to take GNVQ courses at foundation, intermediate or advanced level.

Mr. Hicks : I am not sure about my hon. Friend's response to my question

Hon. Members : It was the wrong answer.

Madam Speaker : Order. May I ask the Minister to look at his answer ? We are on Question 4.

Mr. Boswell rose -- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. We all make mistakes. Come along.

Mr. Boswell : I am grateful for your indulgence, Madam Speaker. The Government's policies have led to record student numbers in higher education. Total student numbers in England rose from some 718,000 students in 1982-83 to 1,201,000 in 1992-93--a massive increase of more than 67 per cent.

Mr. Hicks : That sounds a darned sight better answer than the previous one.

Despite the unease that some of us felt about the introduction of student loans, will my hon. Friend say how the level of funding for students in higher education here compares with that for their equivalents in our European partners ? Secondly, will he give an assurance that there is no suggestion that our students should be charged part of their tuition fees ?

Mr. Boswell : Our student funding package, both in grants and in loans, compares most favourably with those of all our European counterparts and I assure my hon. Friend that the Government have no plans to introduce tuition fees.

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Mr. Grocott : Would not it be a good idea if, in line with their thoughts in recent years, the Government started publishing league tables of ministerial competence ? It might be helpful if, as well as publishing statistics comparing the number of places in higher education now with the number 10 years ago, they published statistics on the opportunities for school leavers now compared with those a decade ago. Is not it crystal clear that many pupils make the choice simply because there is no alternative open to them ? Is not it time that the Government started expanding real opportunities and real choice for school leavers ?

Mr. Boswell : It would be an excellent idea for Departments to publish comparative tables ; our Department, under my right hon. Friend, would come high. Also, we have a good record in relation to school leavers. For a start, we now have a comprehensive range of vocational qualifications to supplement the well-tried academic qualifications and there has been an expansion in the number of school leavers over the past five years. We have the highest staying-on rate and young people have ranges of qualifications which they will find of great benefit in their future careers.

Mr. Forman : Is my hon. Friend aware that a recent development that will please many students who are benefiting from higher education is the Government's decision to modify their proposals for student union reform and to introduce a sensible code of practice and the right of students to opt-out ? Will he confirm that that is now the Government's policy ?

Mr. Boswell : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. We now offer a programme, based on the principles set out by my right hon. Friend, of choice, accountability and democracy in student unions and the control of excesses by codes of practice determined by the institutions. That, too, is positive news for students in higher and further education.

Mr. Bryan Davies : Does not the Government clampdown on expansion in higher education mean that institutions are reluctant to make firm offers until A-level results are known ? Does not that mean chaos in August for students and for institutions ?

Mr. Boswell : Many people would like to see greater certainty in that matter and would like to base all offers on actual rather than prospective or projected qualifications. Our student numbers are at record levels and, if that is a clampdown, it merely reinforces a record level of student numbers.

Grant-maintained Schools --

5. Sir John Hannam : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what surveys have been undertaken of the progress being made by grant- maintained schools since acquiring self-governing status.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools has found that self-governing schools use their freedom to good effect. Inspectors have observed in most grant- maintained schools a greater proportion of satisfactory or better than satisfactory lessons than in maintained schools generally, commendable pupil behaviour and attendance

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and improved teacher morale. That picture is confirmed by a survey published by the Grant-Maintained Schools Centre in the past month, in which the majority of schools responding reported increasing pupil numbers, improved pupil-teacher ratios and, in the secondary sector, the introduction of new subjects.

Sir John Hannam : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the disappointment felt by the majority of teachers and governors at St. Thomas high school in my constituency where, in the past week, parents voted down a proposal to become self-governing ? Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to examine the material circulated by the local education authority and other parties, which, of course, must be governed by a code of conduct ?

Mr. Patten : The holder of my office now has powers to declare void ballots where there has been any doubt about any of the material circulated. If my hon. Friend does not mind, I shall not comment on the school in his constituency, for fear that I may have to examine the case. However, I shall ask my hon. Friend to forward all the documents to me.

Without commenting on that case, I understand that Devon is controlled by the Liberal party and, of course, throughout southern and western England, the Liberal party is notorious for its use of underhand political campaigning. Indeed, there have been attempts, led by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), to cause local authority chief education officers to dance to Liberal party tunes.

Mr. Gareth Wardell : Will the Secretary of State join me in ensuring that, where all the proper procedures have been followed, he will not go any further in introducing legislation to force schools to become grant- maintained against the wishes of local people ?

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman knows that, as a fellow geographer, I always listen carefully to him, but I am little surprised that he seems to have lost his daffodil, along with one or two others Opposition Members. I keep my legislative options under continual review.

Mr. Pawsey : My right hon. Friend referred to the lower level of truancy in grant-maintained schools and to higher teacher morale. Is he aware that there is one area in which GM schools do not do so well-- competitive sport ? The reason is that some local education authorities, for spiteful reasons, will not allow their schools to play competitive sports against GM schools.

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend is right. Children who are educated in grant-maintained schools are educated by the state--they are state school children, just as children in maintained schools are educated by the state and are equally state school children. It is true that in certain authorities--Middlesbrough, Nottingham and Derbyshire, to name but three-- it is difficult or impossible for local

county-maintained schools to play competitive sports against grant- maintained schools. It must be wrong that we can send sporting teams to South Africa but it is impossible to send sporting teams to grant- maintained schools. It is a disgraceful form of educational apartheid.

Mr. Don Foster : Does the Secretary of State accept that, given the lower number of schools that have opted out this month, he has wasted £200,000 of taxpayers' money

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on advertisements for GM status ? Can he tell the House whether the contents of those advertisements were statements of fact or merely statements of opinion ?

Mr. Patten : The Liberal party has even fewer education policies than the Labour party, which is saying quite a lot. The hon. Gentleman, together with some of his hon. Friends in another place, has mentioned the nature and content of the advertisement. He made a great fuss, public to-do and tumult about referring it to the Advertising Standards Authority, which has now given the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends an answer : go away and grow up.

Parental Opinion --

6. Mr. Mackinlay : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what mechanisms exist for his Department to gauge parental opinion, as consumers, to the extent that it relates to the Government's policy for schools.

Mr. Forth : Like other hon. Members, Ministers receive correspondence from their constituents and are therefore well placed to gauge parental opinion. In addition, parents' views are regularly sought or made known through, for instance, consultations, meetings with representative bodies and special surveys.

Mr. Mackinlay : Does the Minister understand that increasingly the consultation on opt-out schools is turning against the Government's policies and opt-out schools are diminishing parental choice, in that schools select pupils, rather than parents selecting schools for their children ?

Mr. Forth : The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The facts are that the number of schools balloting remains high, the turnout in those ballots remains high and the number of yes votes remains as high as historically it has been since the beginning of grant-maintained schools. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman make a better effort to consult his parents, as he is obviously completely out of touch.

Sir Malcolm Thornton : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of assessing parental opinion is by looking at what parents do with their children ? Will he join me in congratulating St. Mary's college in my constituency, which recently opened, from its own resources, a £750,000 sports centre ? That facility will be enjoyed by many children who can take advantage of the assisted places scheme, which allows them to attend that school as a matter of choice by their parents--an opportunity which would be denied to them by a Labour Government.

Mr. Forth : What a refreshing contrast between my hon. Friend's positive attitude and the carping and negative attitude of Opposition Members. I believe that, at the appropriate time, parents up and down the country will draw their own conclusions from the sort of attitudes exemplified in the Chamber.

Mr. Beggs : As the Department assesses the opinion of parents, can the Minister tell the House whether there is any evidence of support for those schools that choose to be more selective with their intakes ?

Mr. Forth : I believe that the answer is yes. We have encouraged schools up and down the country to consider their own policies--what they would like to do and how

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they would like to do it--to consult parents locally and then to come forward with proposals for changes in their administration policies if they think that that is appropriate. A number of schools do that and a number of them keep the matter under review. That is something that we encourage because it adds to the elements of choice and diversity in education which my right hon. Friend has been determined to encourage since he took office just under two years ago.

National Vocational Qualifications --

7. Mr. Anthony Coombs : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what targets have been set for the uptake of general national vocational qualifications among 16 to 19-year-olds over the course of the next three years.

Mr. Boswell : We need high take-up of appropriate and demanding vocational qualifications in the next three years if we are to achieve the challenging national targets for education and training. We are aiming for one in four 16-year-olds to be starting GNVQ courses in 1996. Our longer- term aim is for half of all 16 and 17-year-olds to take GNVQs at foundation, intermediate or advanced level.

Mr. Coombs : In welcoming the evident popularity of GNVQs and their importance to the national training targets, may I ask my hon. Friend to agree that their future success will depend on the standards that they set ? In that context, will he examine the comments by Professor Smithers of Manchester university, who said that the qualifications were not sufficiently knowledge-orientated, rather than skills-orientated, and that they should be assessed universally by an examination ?

Mr. Boswell : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. As he will know, the message is so good that inadvertently I have repeated it, but it does bear repeating.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend's comments on rigour. I refer him to the speech that I delivered this morning at the GNVQ workshop conducted by the Confederation of British Industry, in which I analysed all our remaining concerns about GNVQs and dealt with them in a positive but constructive mode.

Further Education Colleges --

8. Mr. Richards : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps he is taking to ensure that colleges of further education publish information regularly for parents and employers about their achievements.

Mr. Boswell : Colleges are required to publish extensive information about the achievements and career destinations of students and make this available to local schools for distribution to pupils in year 11. In 1993, we first included college achievements in the comparative performance tables. We expect colleges to develop their own charters which will highlight performance information. Through these arrangements, we are determined to help young people and their parents to make informed decisions about all the options available.

Mr. Richards : Does my hon. Friend agree that the performance tables are vital in helping students and employers to decide which courses best suit their needs ? Are not they crucial in helping to increase post-16

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education, particularly in my constituency where the excellent Llandrillo college recently won a national training award ?

Mr. Boswell : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is entirely right. We believe in giving schools, colleges, parents and pupils an information revolution in which they will be given as much information as possible. That will expand the opportunities and raise the standards for all in the crucial area between the ages of 16 and 19.

Mr. Dafis : Does the Minister have any information on the number of students who are being obliged to leave further education because they cannot afford to carry on with their courses ? Is not that because they are unable to obtain discretionary grants, income support or housing benefit ? Will the Minister, with his colleagues, consider putting together a satisfactory package of funding for further education students, so that we can have an end to the terrible waste of resources and the failure to train our young people to take up their opportunities ?

Mr. Boswell : The hon. Gentleman will know that current provision on discretionary awards varies by local education authority. He will also be aware that, through the Sir John Cass and Gulbenkian Foundation, we are conducting an authoritative study on the matter which we will publish at the end of March. We shall then carefully consider its conclusions.

Mr. Evennett : While I welcome the publication of more information by colleges of further education, will my hon. Friend give a continuing commitment to school sixth forms ? Will he confirm that the Government believe in choice and diversity in education post-16 and that school sixth forms do a good job in developing young people's education in addition to colleges of education ?

Mr. Boswell : I have no difficulty in agreeing with my hon. Friend. Recently, we published a new framework for the way in which we handle proposals for school sixth forms alongside further education colleges. They are both important, they are not antagonistic and they should be complementary.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : Do the achievements of the colleges of further education include the decision of Bath further education college to sack 60 lecturers ? The college has now had to rescind that decision and go to arbitration. Would not the Minister do better to urge further education employers to go to arbitration, rather than supporting the employers in a decision to foment industrial unrest ?

Mr. Boswell : I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman suggests that I should involve myself in an industrial dispute. I made it clear, in the context of the holdback letter that we sent to the colleges employers' forum, that we expect some progress on flexibility in contracts. We are not prepared to intervene in the details and I am sure that both parties will be able to resolve the matter amicably and positively between themselves.

Schools (Drug Abuse) --

9. Mr. Peter Ainsworth : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what measures he is taking to combat drug abuse in schools.

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Mr. Forth : Education is an important element of the Government's strategy for tackling drug abuse. The national curriculum requires teaching about the harmful effects of drugs, and helps to develop pupils' capacity to resist pressure to misuse drugs. My Department has published guidance for schools and has funded projects, materials and national bodies working in this field.

Mr. Ainsworth : May I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and ask him to continue to provide as much reassurance as possible to parents throughout the country who are rightly worried about this important matter ? Will he extend education about drug abuse from the higher stages in children's careers to the youngest sensible age ?

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend makes an important point. I believe that the content of the curriculum covering this important matter is about right at present. We start at a very early stage and build up the information about drugs imparted in the classroom to our young people, the effect that they have on the body, the effects of misuse and so on. That is surely one of the most important contributions that education can make to informing young people about drugs and their harmful effects. I believe that as we see the effect of the national curriculum accumulating over the generations of young people, the beneficial effects of education on drugs will become ever more clear.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : If drug education in schools is so important, as the Opposition as well as parents know, why have Government cuts reduced the number of drug education co-ordinators from 135 this time last year to a mere 75 today ? What kind of message does the Minister think that that sends to parents and young people alike ?

Mr. Forth : I think that the hon. Lady is referring to decisions by local education authorities throughout the country and their prioritisation for expenditure. It was indeed the case that some years ago my Department initiated a pump-priming grant, for a specific period only, to allow local education authorities to assess the value of the co-ordinators. The pump priming was extended not once but twice. It then came to an end. Local education authorities, correctly in my view, are now making their own decisions about their priorities.

Mr. Whittingdale : Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Daily Express , which reported its investigation into drug abuse in schools over three days last week ? Does he accept that the problem afflicts not only schools in the inner cities but schools everywhere in the country, including in my constituency ? Does he agree that it is essential that staff and teachers maintain the utmost vigilance if we are to eradicate the menace ?

Mr. Forth : I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Of course, truancy is another element. It must surely be the case that when young people are not in school where they should be, they are vulnerable in shopping centres or wherever, to drug pushers and others who seek to abuse or mislead the children. Therefore, our strong emphasis on tackling truancy is an important part of the overall strategy to reduce the vulnerability to drugs of our young people.

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Parental Choice --

10. Dr. Wright : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on parental choice of schools.

Mr. Patten : The Government have given parents the right to express a preference for their choice of school. In some 90 per cent. of cases, that preference is met. Parents now have much more information, in particular through the publication of school performance tables, school prospectuses and annual reports. There is a wider choice of schools now, with the expansion of the self-governing

grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, more schools with sixth forms, and the network of new technology colleges which I launched yesterday.

Dr. Wright : How does the Minister explain parental choice to the parents at Five Ways primary school in my constituency who have just been told that the Department for Education will not allow them to expand that popular and successful school because someone in Whitehall has discovered that there are surplus places at a school two miles away ? What would the Minister further say to the 38,000 parents who last year had to go to appeal because they were not given the school place of their choice ? Does not that show that although the Government talk about parental choice, it means increased power for schools to choose parents and less power for parents to choose schools ?

Mr. Patten : Labour-controlled Staffordshire county council does not have the best reputation for local education administration. The second of the hon. Gentleman's two questions about the number of appeals shows how well the parents charter and the citizens charter are working. Parents are rightly making successful use of the appeals mechanism. Nine out of 10 parents receive their first choice the first time, which is good. I do not know about the case of the specific school mentioned by the hon. Gentleman in the first of his two questions. If he writes to me I shall personally consider the position and write to him.

If there are two schools within two miles of each other, and there are many surplus school places, there should probably be only one school. The school left should be the high-quality school around whose walls parents queue for their children to gain admission. We want top-quality schools, not half- empty schools such as those kept by Labour local education authorities, in Staffordshire, for example.

Mr. Ashby : What choice do parents in north-west Leicestershire have when the local education authority refuses to pay the travel costs of children whose parents have made a choice of school ? That applies particularly in rural districts where distances travelled may be great.

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend is right. Leicestershire is another local authority that is notorious for discriminating against parental choice. In the same way, the new Lib-Lab pact in Essex is trying to discriminate against those who want to send their children to schools of their choice.

Madam Speaker rose

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Mr. Patten : The Liberal and Labour parties are doing the same thing in Wiltshire, where they are deliberately discriminating against parents who exercise the choice to give their children a religious education.

I am sorry for that, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : I should hope so.

Nursery Education --

11. Mr. Pickthall : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans he has to change the standard spending assessment calculation for the education of under-fives.

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