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Column 34realise just how far things had gone. Another text used is a poem about a boy's killing of his cat by shutting it in the door. It includes the words :
"The black fur squealed and he felt his skin
Prickle with sparks of dry delight."
The boy killers of James Bulger probably felt the same sensation. What chance do today's young people have when even school allows them no refuge from such squalor ? What kind of society can it be in which parents, teachers, school governors and an archbishop can persuade themselves that gang rape is a suitable and entirely appropriate subject for school children to study--and in the name of English literature ?
Sir Michael Neubert : Yes, at a Church of England school. That is why I welcomed the news, in March, that the reading list of mainly classic authors would be retained in the revised national curriculum, despite the opposition of leading English teachers. The council of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority agreed unanimously to overturn the recommendation of its own advisers that teachers should be free to choose the writers and works that pupils study.
I admire the council's pluck--one up for political incorrectness. It must have had its work cut out. Unfortunately, teachers can no longer be trusted to exercise discretion, because too many of them have been tutored in the progressive thinking that has prevailed since the permissive 1960s. The headmaster's defence was that, according to the latest figures, there were 69 teenage pregnancies per 1,000, and the abortion rate for girls aged 11 to 16 in 1991 was 2.2 per 1,000--2.8 in our area. What does he expect ? If young people are saturated with sex, they will think of little else. An English lesson is a chance to show them that there are other things in life.
Nor should we overlook the element of political motivation in what has been happening in our schools. Nowadays, it is out in the open. Terry Eagleton, Warton professor of English literature at Oxford university--who has described himself as a "shamelessly
unreconstructed Marxist", and who persuaded more than 500 academics, including 20 other university professors, to support a letter that he wrote to The Times Higher Education Supplement --believes that language is fascist, grammar an instrument of oppression wielded by the bourgeoisie against the working class and the horror film "Nightmare on Elm Street" every bit as worthy of study as "A Midsummer Night's Dream". He also believes that correcting children's speech is seriously harmful to their self-esteem.
Consciously or unconsciously, many teachers are helping to bring about the triumph of the left in education by absorbing such ideas and putting them into practice in the classroom. Part of "Stobhill" is in raw Scots dialect. There may be a case for advanced students to study such texts, but when the general level of literacy is causing so much concern, secondary school children studying modern authors would be better served by works written in standard English. Children are the casualties of this ideological warfare. It is they who are being sent out into an increasingly
Column 35competitive world--into a hostile environment where more than 20 million people are unemployed in Europe, 35 per cent. of whom have never had a job.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton) : Does my hon. Friend agree that children whose spelling, grammar and knowledge are not corrected at school are strongly disadvantaged as adults ? Is he aware of a document on the subject of crime that is being circulated in my constituency this week ? I have a copy with me. The spelling of the word "neighbourhood", as in "neighbourhood watch", begins "neib" in one instance and "neirb" in another ; the word "scheme" is spelt "sceme", and the spelling of "prevention", as in "crime prevention", begins "pro". Does my hon. Friend agree that the Liberal Democrat councillors who circulated the document would have benefited from testing in schools ?
Sir Michael Neubert : My hon. Friend's comments will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who is representing the Liberals today and who is familiar with the document. I was not aware how closely illiteracy and Liberalism in the south-west were connected. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) would do better to elect better trained and Conservative candidates in the council elections next week.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : While we are on the subject of spelling mistakes and grammar, may I point out that on one infamous occasion the Secretary of State for Wales issued a statement containing four spelling mistakes and at least three grammatical errors ? When it was marked by an English teacher, the right hon. Gentleman was given the thumbs down in terms of GCSE grading.
Sir Michael Neubert : That does not surprise me either. I have had the good fortune of serving as a Minister in Her Majesty's Government. During that time I, too, was disappointed and disillusioned by the standard of spelling among the civil servants who prepared briefs and press statements for me. I will not blame my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales without further inquiry : it may be that he has delegated too far and unwisely.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath) : I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) that the spelling was incorrect and that it was a great pity. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to investigate the spelling of the word "grammar" as in grammar school. I could tell him an interesting story involving the use of that word. He will recall that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has used the following three phrases in recent months :
"Myself and Emily Blatch have been all around the country", "me and my inspectors have been to hundreds of schools", and
"just the kind of thing that me as a parent".
Sir Michael Neubert : I would do better to await the more lengthy speech of the hon. Gentleman than to listen to examples of misspellings. I am sure that we could all produce our favourite examples and argue them for rather longer than we have available this afternoon, although I should be the last person to diminish the importance of spelling : I have always believed it to be an important grounding for life, and I still do so.
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford) : With regard to presentation and communication, if people do not care how they spell or how they present their ideas, are they likely to care about the policies that they wish to present ? All hon. Members know that Liberal Democrats say one thing here and another in their constituencies, one thing in the council chamber and another at the council ward, one thing in one village and another thing in another village, and one thing in one street and a different thing in the next street.
To return to the subject of children, who are so often casualties of ideological warfare, if they are not to join the 20 million unemployed in Europe they must not leave school unable to express themselves competently in their own language, unable to make simple calculations in their heads and with their sensibilities brutalised by squalor. I call on the Secretary of State, when he makes his decision on the curriculum later this year to range himself with the traditionalists and me--I think I use the word "me" correctly there--and my noble Friend Lady Blatch in agreeing that the sort of material that I have described is wholly inappropriate and that the study of English, to quote Lady Blatch,
"is best advanced through an emphasis on the tried and tested works of real distinction".
On the wider question of the level of attainment achieved by our school leavers, I again commend the Government for their dogged pursuit of the principle of testing. It has long been clear to me that teachers object to testing often because tests are a test of them as well as of their pupils. However, it is imperative that there is a system of interim tests to check on progress, because leaving it to the final year examinations is too late- -by then, any damage done can rarely be remedied in later life.
There are few second chances in education, which is why I regret the continuing opposition of the National Union of Teachers to testing. To judge from its much televised conference over the Easter weekend, it seems to have been hijacked by the hard left. Its position is neither honourable nor responsible. The Government have gone to considerable lengths to meet genuine grievances in introducing the system. The time has now come for all those involved to unite in making the system a success for the sake of children. Lest it be thought that my comments are unduly critical of teachers, I should mention that at the start of my career I did some teaching and am a certificated teacher. That experience left me with the highest regard for the dedication and vocation of the vast majority of teachers, but the welfare of the next generation is too important for me not to say what I think now.
The greatest threat to the welfare of children is the breakdown of the traditional family on which the structure of our society is founded. Let us consider some facts taken from an information sheet prepared by the Maranatha community as evidence of what it calls the "gathering storm clouds". The number of divorces has doubled since 1971 ; the United Kingdom has the second highest divorce rate in Europe, Denmark having the highest which, similarly, has the highest number of women in work, the United Kingdom coming second ; marriage breakdown is now six times higher than in 1961 ; there was a 400 per cent. increase in births outside marriage between 1971 and 1991 ; eight in 10 births to women under the age of 20 are outside marriage, or are what used to be called illegitimate ;
Column 372 million children are being raised in single -parent families ; one in five children conceived in the United Kingdom is aborted and 3.5 million abortions were carried out in England and Wales between 1968 and 1991. If children had a choice, how many would choose to be born into a world such as this ?
The consequences of those figures are too numerous to detail, but we are all well aware of them. Every day, the newspapers bring news of some new enormity : increasing violence, spiralling social security expenditure, rising crime and drug addiction and widespread alcoholism which all mean a greater burden on the health service. Children are frequently the victims of such problems.
We have allowed our traditional way of life to be subverted and we are paying a terrible price for it. We must reassert our support for the family and devise and direct our policies to that end. We cannot afford to do otherwise--the creaking platform of public expenditure is on the point of collapse. Parts of our cities are not only nuclear-free zones but are rapidly becoming nuclear family-free zones.
Support for lone parents had risen to £5 billion a year before the Government took the decisive step to set up the Child Support Agency. Parents must be made to accept responsibility for their children and for their own future. Those who separate or who refuse to commit themselves to marriage should not look to the rest of us for support in their later years. Independence and irresponsibility now may be at the expense of loneliness and deprivation in years to come. Partnerships and relationships may prove to be the ultimate 20th century tragedy.
Among some of the worst influences to which young people are exposed are the violent images on video and television and in the cinema. The growth of violence is unquestionably one of the most alarming developments of recent years because it is so often pointless, unpredictable and inexplicable. There can be no ultimate protection for any of us against it but, for years, trendy opinion held that there was no connection between violent images and violent action. Now, at last, the academics have finally realised what common sense led the rest of us to conclude from the start-- there is a connection.
The House did itself some credit two weeks ago by insisting on tougher curbs on video nasties. A few days later, a survey by the Professional Association of Teachers confirmed the widespread circulation of violent and pornographic videos among children of even primary school age. The horrific film "Silence of the Lambs" was one eight-year-old girl's favourite Christmas holiday film. One wonders who and where her parents are ; one would be interested to meet them.
The potency of visual images on the television screen threatens to mar the life of every young child. A photograph published in The Sunday Telegraph after our debate illustrated that point with stark clarity. It depicted a baby in its high chair which had been placed within two feet of a 24-inch television set, head-on to the screen. He was looking at the screen in bemusement while the mother sat smoking a cigarette and watching him. In that way, we create a nation of zombies. The phenomenal power of television is barely constrained and rarely accountable. If parents use television and video as previous generations used the dummy, selfishly shrugging off their own responsibilities for looking after their children, we are lost. "Only connect", said the communications guru Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. "Only corrupt" might be the motto now. It is no surprise, given its all- pervasive,
Column 38all-powerful influence, that television is the favoured medium for those who seek to undermine our traditional way of life. Channel 4 is currently doing its best. Its gay Christmas has been followed by a lesbian spring. To give the flavour of what was on offer at Christmas, apart from a queen's speech by Quentin Crisp, there was an episode, caught by one of my constituents switching channels, which showed a man drinking his mistress's urine. Whether it was out of a tumbler or straight from the woman's orifice, I have not yet summoned up the strength to ask. Either way, it does not seem likely to have been a high point in western civilisation. Other programmes promised visits to strip joints and public urinals. In "The Greatest Fxxxxxx Show on Earth", a comic argued for more bad language on television. When challenged, Channel 4's defence is that it is required by its remit to offer programmes that are an alternative to those on the other channels. To that, I say that necrophilia may have its adherents, but that does not seem a reason for it to be shown on the screen in a living room. A second defence, echoed by the Independent Television Commission, is that such programmes represent only a small proportion of the hours transmitted. The question is whether such material should be transmitted at all. The argument is on a par with the Punch cartoon in which the unmarried housemaid confesses to an illegitimate baby, but says that it is only a very small one. Let us be clear that programming of that character, which flouts all standards of decency, taste and discretion, does not come about by chance. Programme-makers are constantly seeking to extend the limits of what they can get away with. The examples that I have given are a deliberate and direct assault on three of our major institutions : the monarchy, the Christian Church and the family. We cannot allow the subversives to win. That means, among other things, that we cannot be all things to all men and all women, and all things in between.
There is no doubt that political motivation is one mainspring. Conservatives should wake up. After being rejected at the ballot box by the British people in four successive general elections, the left has been left to penetrate our defences from underground. Anything that undermines our traditional way of life is likely to sap our political strength at the same time. We should, therefore, especially beware egalitarianism masquerading as equality and the
fallacy--perhaps spelt with a "ph"--that women are the same as men.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way as I missed the first few minutes of his speech. He and I taught at the same institution, although at different times. He will know that in that institution, a great deal was done through school assembly and religious instruction to inculcate values by which children could live in later life. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the report late last week that the National Association of Head Teachers seemed to question what could be achieved through school assemblies ?
Sir Michael Neubert : Yes, I share that concern. One of the reassurances today is that, if he is successful in catching your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) may touch on this subject in his own speech.
I was talking about the role that women have to play in the world ; I defy the fallacy that women are the same as
Column 39men. In the uniquely precious responsibility of creating and nurturing children, men and women have different but indispensable roles. Children need two responsible parents, preferably their own. The motion calls for
"a stable, healthy and well-ordered society".
To achieve that, we shall need to give greater emphasis to discipline, respect for authority, consideration of others and, above all, the integrity of family life. There is a phrase for it : "Forward to fundamentals".
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) on managing, at last, to obtain such a high- profile position for a private Member's motion and on the serious and important subject that he has chosen to introduce. Probably, I would heartily concur with more than three quarters of what he said, and I hope that I shall be able to explain where I felt that he was not hitting the target.
There can be no doubt that in Britain we need to improve the quality of the education given to our children and to consider seriously the society in which we live and the way in which it is developing. However, a part of what the hon. Gentleman said placed a great deal of the onus in achieving all those aims on schools and on teachers. He began to admit, in commenting on the influence of television and mass media, that there were other issues to consider. We need to make it clear that there have been developments in society in the past 10 or 20 years for which teachers and schools cannot bear responsibility, and which are of far more fundamental importance. Of course, what we did not hear in the hon. Gentleman's speech was the fact that, for more than half the period in question and certainly over the past 15 years, his own Government have been in power. Some of the things that they have done, and the atmosphere and the ambience created in our society by them, have contributed significantly to the problems that he described and the fears that he raised.
For example, if we consider the legacy of the past 15 years in education, we find in our schools that the lack of discipline and the instances of the exclusion of pupils for behavioural problems are growing. Probably, those occurrences are vastly under-reported, yet the figures are still growing tremendously. It is only in the past 12 months that the Government have begun to consider seriously ways in which those problems may be tackled.
It is not the first occasion on which the Government have considered those problems. The substantial Elton report, which was published about four years ago, included 138 recommendations on how schools, local authorities, other agencies and central Government could contribute towards making schools places where children could learn in an ordered atmosphere. However, it has taken some four years or more from the publication of that report for the Government to take the problem seriously. The motion addresses a problem which has been experienced especially in the past decade.
We have seen the drive towards the local management of schools ; I entirely agree with the Government on the need to give schools greater independence and control over finances. Labour local authorities were pioneering the idea
Column 40long before the great education reform Bill was introduced. [Interruption.] I heard a sedentary intervention of "Rubbish", but I assure the hon. Member who made it that he plainly does not know what happened in many local authorities around the country. There were Labour authorities that pioneered the local management of schools. There may have been other schools, as the hon. Member for Louth
Mr. Win Griffiths : I am sorry. It was the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown). I cannot keep pace with the rate of change in England. There were those who opposed the local management of schools, but, let us be clear, it was pioneered by Labour authorities.
Due to the way in which the entire financing of education has changed in the past few years, there have been tremendous pressures in schools-- arising principally out of the way in which the average salary has been used in the formula rather than the real salary--on the number of teachers employed. For the first time, pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools, especially, are beginning to rise. However, classes are getting bigger and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate that that is a legacy of some of the ill-considered changes that have been made by the Government, which, so often, were right in principle, but wrong in application.
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that expenditure per pupil since 1979 has been increased by 47 per cent. in real terms ? That has surely added to the ability of schools to educate children and to give them the three essentials of skills, discipline and enthusiasm for education. As he says that the Opposition take the matter so seriously, will he explain why the Government Benches are well populated at the moment, yet the Opposition Benches are completely bare, as they have been throughout the debate so far ?
Mr. Griffiths : May I take the more serious point made by the hon. Gentleman about the issue of funding ? The funding of education in the post -war period has increased tremendously, but a large part of that increase has been to meet the greater demands of the education system, such as the use of computers in schools, laboratory equipment and the machinery needed for new technology.
When I was in school, they were only beginning to bring in equipment such as lathes. Yes, it was very much cheaper to educate children when one relied on pen, paper, pencils, chalk and blackboards, when overhead projectors were unknown and one was lucky if one had a slide show once a year in a school during the 1940s or 1950s.
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham) : The hon. Gentleman referred to class sizes. Would he think back to when he was at school, when, I expect, he was educated in the traditional method by which the teachers stood in front of the class with a blackboard and the pupils sat facing the teacher in ranks at their desks ? Surely, it is much easier to keep control of the class and to impart knowledge to a class so structured than it is with the modern methods under which children sit at little tables each doing their own thing, and the teacher has to try to keep up with what each little group is doing. If we returned to the methods that
Column 41were so effective when the hon. Gentleman was at school, would not we be able to manage with larger classes and produce a much better result ?
Mr. Griffiths : The hon. Gentleman was assuming that I was satisfied with the quality of education that I received. Indeed, at lunchtime today, I made a speech at Dulwich college on Labour's proposals for the future of education, which was well received, in which I explained where I felt that my own education could have been improved.
Whether the children are taught in serried rows or in groups in a class room is irrelevant. Instead, we must focus on the outcome of their education. In my case, in many subjects, the outcome was very good ; in other subjects, it was not good. I was sitting in a row when I was being taught subjects A and B, but the outcome was far better in one subject than the other. It would seem that the rows within the class room were irrelevant. Far more important was the relationship between myself and the teacher and whatever else it was that motivated me. That is why it is so wrong to try to provide blanket solutions or to mount a blanket attack on what teachers are doing in schools.
Unfortunately, pupil-teacher ratios are rising in primary schools, despite the headline improvement in funding. Hiding behind that fact and not recognising that there are problems are perhaps reasons why all the difficulties to which the hon. Member for Romford referred have been placed on our doorstep. We have been far too prepared to defend our own positions, wherever we may find ourselves in the political and education spectrums, without looking too closely at the complications that arise in trying to ensure that children are taught effectively.
The headline figures tell us that there are better performances at GCSE examinations and at A-level. More children are going on to higher education of various sorts. Against that background, one would have to say that the hon. Member for Romford was entirely misplaced when he expressed fears about the education system. I was in sympathy, however, with much that he had to say about standards. Despite the good headline figures that reflect progress in the post-war period, we must deal with complaints that basic literacy and numeracy standards are not high enough to enable employers to have confidence in youngsters when they come to them for work. We know, too, that some of our comparisons with international competitors show that we are not as good as we should be.
We can spread the blame where we like, but it should be acknowledged that some good ideas, in principle, were being thrown up in the 1970s--for example, a national curriculum and schools having greater control of their budgets. Unfortunately, those ideas were implemented in a way that has proved to be counterproductive.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Unfortunately, even the best motivated teachers in a school frequently find themselves without any serious basis of comparison with what is being achieved by better schools elsewhere when educating pupils of a similar calibre. Is it not disappointing that the National Union of Teachers should set its face against one of the simplest methods of informing teachers what can be achieved, in the form of tests ?
Mr. Griffiths : That is where one of the great confusions arises. The NUT is not opposed either to the assessment or testing of pupils. Its membership, by means of a ballot conducted throughout the union, decided that it would
Column 42continue with the assessment of children to provide information about the progress of children for the children themselves and for the parents. At the same time, it did not believe that this year's national curriculum tests should be compulsory, because the tests this year will be drastically changed next year.
The union's membership is happy to ensure that the testing system is the right one, but it does not see why it is necessary to force all schools to take a test this year that is not likely to be a similar one next year. Let us be clear that NUT teachers have no problem with ideas about assessment and testing, although they have specific opposition to this year's testing alone. There is no problem about the future or about the outcome of the Dearing review, when--let us hope--there will be a system of both assessment and testing. We should not forget that the Dearing review places greater emphasis on the assessment of pupils than on specific testing. I hope that, following the review, we shall have a system of assessment and testing with which teachers can be comfortable in the context of their work load. I hope also that they will feel that they are providing information to parents that will be genuinely helpful to them in assessing the progress of their children and the way in which the school is performing.
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the position of the NUT as he has described it from his perception was not that which most of us understood from listening to the union's representatives at its national conferences as shown on television--or will he sensibly disown the speakers from the London borough of Islington, who made such a lot of noise ?
Mr. Griffiths : As a consultant for the NUT, I was at the conference. I was amazed and extremely concerned when I heard some of the things that were said there. I am entirely confident, however, from my knowledge of teachers who are in their class rooms and who do not work through the structures of the union to attend its conference, that many of the speeches did not reflect the views of most members of the union.
I was trying to explain that the NUT's policy on assessment and testing is not one of blanket opposition. It has specific complaints about this year's tests and it is involved in the consultation process within the Dearing review. It is looking forward to the final proposals. I hope that the proposals will be of a nature that will enable teachers and pupils to have information on progress to pass on to parents as well as information about the way in which the school itself is performing.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : Am I to understand that, after all, the NUT will be supporting the full programme of testing ? Does the hon. Gentleman understand that parents are seeking not only an assessment from the child's teacher but a comparison with other children throughout the country ? In the absence of that information, the parent will never know whether the child is performing well. We should not rely on the individual teacher.
Mr. Griffiths : It is a matter of assessment and testing. That is what the Dearing review is about, as the hon. Lady will recognise. As I have said, the review placed greater emphasis on assessment than testing, but the two processes go together. Parents have a right to information about their
Column 43child's progress. The school needs to produce information about the way in which it is educating children who attend it.
The hon. Lady and I may part company over the fact that I do not believe that it is the job of the Department for Education to spend millions of pounds publishing national lists of results. Schools can publish those results and if that information is used by the newspapers or whatever, that is entirely up to them. However, the Department for Education should not have to spend millions of pounds to disseminate information which schools should make available to the parents of their pupils.
Mr. Don Foster : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Secretary of State for Education may wish to consider seriously the decision taken by the Secretary of State for Scotland to introduce a system of testing and assessment with which, I suspect, Conservative Members would be entirely happy, as would parents and teachers throughout the country ?
Mr. Griffiths : There is a great deal of merit in the Scottish system. The Labour party is following closely how that system works in Scotland to discover whether the benefits can be translated into an English situation--and perhaps even into a Welsh situation, who knows ?
Testing and assessment are required. The hon. Member for Romford referred to English literature. I also studied English literature. While the hon. Gentleman's examples were lurid, I entirely agree that they are not suitable material to be found in most classrooms for children in their early and mid teens.
The hon. Member said that Professor Eagleton had the support of 20 professors. That may be 20 professors too many, but we are still talking about only a small minority of those involved in education. We should really consider what is happening in classrooms. I taught for 13 years and when I marked my pupils' work, without fail I marked spelling errors. I always put the correct spelling in the margin and I always drew that to the attention of my pupils. On some occasions, I even made students write out those words to reinforce the correct spelling.
Lady Olga Maitland : Not only is it appropriate to point out spelling mistakes, it is important to mark down work when a child fails to produce correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, because if that is not done, the child will never learn the disciplines that are involved.
Mr. Griffiths : I always corrected grammar if it was wrong in a sentence. Yes, I told pupils that they would lose marks. If an essay was worth eight out of 10 or an A in terms of its content, it could lose marks and even a grade if the spelling and grammar were atrocious. However, those judgments must be made against the principle that teachers should teach children how to spell and write properly. There should be no mistake about that. One should not then try to tar the whole of the teaching profession, and all English teachers, because of a few lurid examples of what happens in a tiny minority of schools. We should get it right in those schools, but we should not give the impression that the whole of the system is contaminated by bad practice.
Lady Olga Maitland : I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so patient. With regard to spelling, does he agree that teachers must conduct regular weekly spelling tests ? Why do what I call the rather soft left members of the teaching profession resist those tests ?
Mr. Griffiths : As I did not teach English at the stage when I would expect children to be doing spelling tests, I cannot rely on my personal experience. However, as a pupil, I learnt lists of words. I did not find that that inhibited my ability to enjoy English. I certainly believe that such tests should be part of the way in which teachers can teach English. If spelling tests have died out, I believe that they should be revived.
The point about Sir Ron Dearing's review is that it saved the Government from the worst breakdown in our education system in living memory. Sir Ron Dearing saved the Government from a breakdown in our schools. We should recognise the Government's courage in accepting the recommendations of the Dearing review because that amounted to a complete U-turn on everything that was said and done before that point.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I amequally grateful for his kind words. However, he will acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recognised that there was a problem in the development of the curriculum and testing last year. He asked Sir Ron Dearing to come in, to consider the problem impartially and speedily and to suggest solutions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State then accepted those suggestions. I am sure that that puts the hon. Gentleman's kind words in context.
Mr. Griffiths : I entirely agree that Sir Ron Dearing was appointed on the Secretary of State's initiative. However, he was appointed because there was total deadlock between virtually the whole of the teaching profession, the Secretary of State and parents who made it quite clear that they were concerned about what was happening. The Secretary of State had to find a way out and Sir Ron Dearing proved to be that way out.
I pay credit to the Secretary of State for recognising the need to appoint Sir Ron Dearing and for accepting all the principles behind the Dearing review. In the meantime, nearly £500 million had been spent on introducing the curriculum which was just about to go through a massive transformation because of the appointment of Sir Ron Dearing. To return to my earlier point, this represents a missed opportunity in the history of education in this country.
Back in 1976, the Prime Minister of the day, now Lord Callaghan, effectively started the debate about the national curriculum and general standards in our schools. The Conservative Government picked up the baton when they came to power. Unfortunately, instead of engaging in proper consultation, they had a view of the national curriculum, assessment and testing and they pushed it through despite the protests and objections of virtually everyone in education. If the Government had only listened at that point, hundreds of millions of pounds could have been saved and we might have reached the point that we will be reaching in the next year or two, three or four years earlier and without the travail, confrontation, damage and breakdown that have occurred in our education system in the meantime.
Column 45The national curriculum may be the most serious example of ill-considered spending of money. However, we must also consider the Government's grant-maintained schools initiative which is slowly but surely grinding to a halt. There has been a massive waste of money in the introduction of grant-maintained schools not only in respect of the Government's ploys to encourage more schools to go grant maintained, but in respect of the way in which those schools, at the earliest stage, were given additional and extra funding which resulted in state schools-- local authority schools--losing out. Millions of pounds were lost there. It can be argued that the assisted places scheme, at a cost of something like £3,500 a place in 1993, is not the most effective use of resources in improving our education system.
Dr. Spink : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again ; I thank him for his patience. Can he tell us the Labour party's policy with regard to grant-maintained schools ? Would Labour continue to support them or close them down ? While he is talking about the Labour party's education policy, could he tell us its policy in all other areas of education, because the House and the rest of the nation are waiting to hear what it is ?
Mr. Griffiths : Our policy on grant-maintained schools is clear. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman finds it difficult to keep up with the news. Our policy is that the appointed Funding Agency for Schools would be abolished, and grant-maintained schools would continue, but they would not have that status. They would be run like any other locally maintained schools. The whole of the funding of schools would be reviewed. That is currently being examined by the Select Committee on Education, and the Government have their own common funding formula process going on.
Grant-maintained schools would continue to exist. They would continue to have an independent role like any locally managed school. Indeed, the Labour party is looking at a number of options for types of local management because we found that many heads are not happy with the type of local management that they have at present. Some of them feel that they have too much ; some feel that they have too little.
Dr. Spink : I am still confused about the Labour party's policy on grant-maintained schools. Would the schools exist with total management control of the governing bodies consisting essentially of parents of children at those schools, or would the status of the schools change ?
Mr. Griffiths : I am astonished by what the hon. Gentleman said, because the majority of governors of grant-maintained schools are not parents. As he said, parents are not the majority. In developing its policies, the Labour party is looking at proposals to enable more members of a governing body to be elected rather than appointed, as happens at present. The governing body of a
Column 46grant-maintained school would probably still be substantially what it is at present, but any changes introduced for greater democracy would apply to grant-maintained schools as locally maintained and managed schools, so the status would be gone. Let us make it clear : the status would be gone, but the schools would continue to exist and would be managed in much the same way as they are at present. There has been a whole series of Government initiatives which I shall not dwell on now. The assisted places scheme and the city technology colleges have all cost a lot of extra money which has been ploughed into the system. Much more of the Government's money has been given to those schools than to other schools, and the rest of the state sector has been badly let down. It is that unfairness which has caused so many of the problems that we have today.
I shall set out some of the positive things that need to be done in education to combat some of the problems raised by the hon. Member for Romford. First, we would give priority to nursery education. The research evidence in this country and abroad is strong and shows that good-quality education gives children the best start in life. Over a period, the investment in nursery education would be paid back time and again in savings for the state.