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House of Commons

Tuesday 14 June 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


Madam Speaker acquainted the House that she had issued during the Adjournment a warrant for a new Writ for the borough constituency of Monklands, East in the room of the right hon. John Smith, QC, deceased.

Oral Answers to Questions


Student Loans --

1. Mr. Fabricant : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what analysis his Department has made of the effects of the introduction of the student loan scheme on the uptake of student places in institutions of higher education.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : Student loans were introduced in September 1990 to support the Government's plans for the expansion of higher education. In the current academic year, a record proportion of young people have found places in higher education. The current student support arrangements, including the availability of student loans, have made this possible.

Mr. Fabricant : Does my hon. Friend recall that when he and I were at university--not together, Madam Speaker--we both used to take loans from banks and they were certainly not on such agreeable terms as those currently available ? Does he also recall that just six or nine months ago Labour Members were saying that the student loan scheme would mean that students would not apply for higher education ? Is that not another example of the Opposition's scare tactics ?

Mr. Boswell : I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Student loans offer excellent value for money ; they are merely tied to the rate of inflation and do not have to be repaid unless people are earning something like £14,000 a year. There is no evidence whatever of any decline in participation in higher education as we now have the highest number of students on record.

Mr. Wigley : Whatever the backgrounds of the Minister and the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), and whether or not they could afford loans and came from a culture willing to take up such loans, is the Minister aware that thousands of people come from homes where there is unemployment or fear of unemployment or

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where people are just afraid of taking up a loan ? Whatever his experience, mine is that people are not going to universities when they could, because they cannot afford to do so.

Mr. Boswell : It is interesting to note that last autumn's student income and expenditure survey showed that for the first time the participation of people from comparatively less advantaged social groups exceeded 50 per cent. of the total in higher education. That gives the lie to any suggestion that our policies are exclusive or stop students choosing to study.

Mr. Bryan Davies : Will the Minister confirm the statement of the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England that funding for teaching will be reduced by 14 per cent. over the next three years if present trends continue ? How can students taking out increasingly expensive loans expect high-quality higher education in those circumstances ?

Mr. Boswell : The quality procedures that the Government have put in place, alongside those that the higher education institutions have introduced, guarantee the highest possible standards of education in our universities and colleges. The Government have increased real spending on higher education by approximately 20 per cent. over the past five years, they have increased real spending by 2.6 per cent. in the current year, and they have provided for an increased capital programme of 20 per cent. extra in the next three years. That shows that we mean business in relation to delivering higher education.

Mr. John Marshall : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the system of student support in this country is the most generous anywhere in the world ? Will he also note that the Labour party has still to say what it would do to replace student loans ?

Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is certainly the most generous system in Europe and many of our students' counterparts in Germany, for example, would give their eye teeth for the support that our students enjoy. We have nothing to be ashamed of in our participation or in the delivery of higher education.

Departmental Publicity --

2. Mr. Enright : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what sum of money has been spent on publicising the policies and activities of his Department over (a) the last five years and (b) the five-year period prior to that.

Mr. Boswell : In the past five years, the Government have spent £31.6 million on providing information to parents, teachers, school governors and others. From 1984-85 to 1989-90, £4.8 million was spent.

This spending on publicity is currently running at around 0.15 per cent. of the Department's own spending on education.

Mr. Enright : The Minister has said that he is proud of the increased spending on education, but is he proud of the fact that for every £1 spent on publicity when the Government took office £90 is now being spent ? Would he not be better advised to spend on real research the millions

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of pounds that are now put aside instead of trying to justify his petty party-political prejudices by expensive and glossy magazines ?

Mr. Boswell : I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels better after getting that off his chest. Any expenditure by Government Departments on publicity is governed by a strict code of practice. We believe that it is an important part of the information revolution to give real information to parents, as we did in our parents charters this morning. Yes, it is a significant amount of money, but it is interesting to note that it is only half of that which we are still giving in grant to, for example, the inner London councils following the end of the Inner London education authority. It is a trivial amount in comparison with the total spending on education.

Madam Speaker : May we have briefer answers, please ?

Mr. Pawsey : I hope that my hon. Friend will disregard the ill- considered comments of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright). If the Government's reforms were not publicised, would not the Opposition be the first to criticise us for seeking to introduce them by stealth ?

Mr. Boswell : The answer to my hon. Friend is yes and yes. It is for parents to decide, on the strength of the information that we provide, whether or not our reforms are well conceived.

Mr. Don Foster : In spending all this money on advertising, does the Minister look for value for money ? Does he agree that it was not value for money to spend £200,000 of taxpayers' money advertising grant- maintained status when, following the advertisements--this information is based on figures supplied by his own Department--only one hundredth of 1 per cent. of the people who saw them responded by requesting further information and the number of schools that balloted yes for grant- maintained status declined by 20 per cent. following those advertisements ?

Mr. Boswell : There are a number of excellent grant-maintained schools functioning in the hon. Gentleman's part of the world ; perhaps that had something to do with the disappointment that he experienced at the weekend. The total expenditure is 26p per pupil on our advisory and publicity campaign in relation to grant-maintained status. That, along with other initiatives, is money very well spent.

Mr. Dunn : Is it possible for some public money to be set aside to create a mechanism whereby the Opposition spokesman on education could be allowed, forced or intimidated into revealing their policies, given that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) does not reply to letters on aspects of her party's policy ?

Mr. Boswell : That is an interesting suggestion and one which I am prepared to discuss with my right hon. Friend, but to judge by the responses to date there would be a very heavy bill indeed for remedial education on that side of the House.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the Minister take this opportunity to answer the original question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) and confirm that Government figures show that the Department for Education is now spending £90 on publicity for every

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£1 that was spent previously ? Has any other aspect of Government spending increased by 9,000 per cent. since 1979 ? Is it not a sad reflection on the two years during which the Secretary of State has been in his present position that his main achievement has been to waste a record amount of taxpayers' money on self-publicity ?

Mr. Boswell : On the contrary--my right hon. Friend has spent taxpayers' money wisely to advise parents and citizens at large of the merits of the Government's policy. It would perhaps be to the point if the Opposition parties were to provide an indication of their policies. Good policies require good information to be given to parents so that parents can benefit from what is being achieved.

Standard Spending Assessment, Hereford and Worcester --

3. Mr. Luff : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the level of the education component of the standard spending assessment for Hereford and Worcester county council.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Robin Squire) : The increase in the Hereford and Worcester education standard spending assessment is higher than average. Allowing for changes of function, this year's education SSA is 3.2 per cent. higher than last year's.

Mr. Luff : Will my hon. Friend confirm that that generous settlement, which is well above the rate of inflation, could have been used by the Lib-Lab pact at county hall to do two things that they shamefully failed to do ? First, it could have funded the teachers' pay award, preventing the need for widespread redundancies in schools in my constituency ; secondly, it could have been used to carry on paying discretionary awards, preventing much heartbreak and hardship among young people in my constituency.

Mr. Squire : The House has heard my hon. Friend's wise words. He will know that it is a responsibility of all education authorities to determine their own priorities, but it is self-evident that his particular county council has had an increase in its standard spending assessment which is higher than the amount needed to fund the teachers' pay award. Therefore, it must account to his constituents for the way in which it has chosen to disperse the assessment, which on the face of it sounds rather eccentric.

Mr. Foulkes : Will the Minister join me in congratulating Hereford and Worcester council on its manifestly good adult education because, like 70 per cent. of the United Kingdom, its people returned a Labour Member of the European Parliament in the past week ?

Mr. Squire : If I may bring the debate back to education issues, the question that I was asked originally, and which I am happy to repeat, is how education authorities of local councils generally determine their priorities. The party of the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) once talked about socialism being the language of priorities, but in the case highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) the priorities seem rather strange.

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Pre-school Education --

4. Mr. Barnes : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans he has to increase the number of three and four-year-olds in pre- school education ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Robin Squire : My hon. Friend has made it clear that we are looking at possible ways to extend the opportunities for children under five, as resources allow and within our policy of promoting choice, diversity, quality and cost-effectiveness. We shall announce our conclusions when we are ready to do so.

Mr. Barnes : More than 20 years ago, when Lady Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education, she introduced a measure which became known as the kiddies charter and there was supposed to be an extension of nursery provision. The Government, which was partly her Government over the past 15 years, have failed abysmally to introduce measures to extend nursery provision. Is that not giving inertia a bad name ?

Mr. Squire : I resent and resist the hon. Gentleman's comments. There has been significant progress in provision for the under-fives, including nursery education, over the past 15 years. The hon. Gentleman has to be very clear. In the language of today, he and his party must indicate where they intend to find money for a more rapid expansion of nursery education than we are likely to produce under the proposals that we are currently considering.

Mr. Harry Greenway : Is my hon. Friend aware that the outgoing Ealing Conservative council increased the number of nursery places in Ealing by 400, at a cost of an extra £1 million in the past four years, to 3,870 ? Is he also aware that the Labour party promised a nursery place for all children under five in Ealing if it won the local election, which it did ? Now it is refusing to do that, although it saw the books before it made the promise, to the fury of the parents of Willow Tree primary school and many others. It does not keep its promises.

Mr. Squire : I am delighted that my hon. Friend has confirmed two important points : first, the very good record of a number of Conservative councils in that particular area ; secondly, directly echoing the points that I made to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), whether or not the Labour party promises to do things before it gets into power, when it gets into power it suddenly seems to have an attack of amnesia.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : Does the Minister accept that we shall never have equality of opportunity for our children until we have universal nursery education ? Why cannot Ministers give any lead in providing nursery education ? Why is it that parents who live in a Labour council area have three times the chance of a nursery place for their children that they have if they live in a Conservative council area ? Is not the lack of progress and the lack of commitment on the part of Government another reason why parents should have no confidence in the Secretary of State ?

Mr. Squire : One of the many differences between the Labour party and the Government is that we are keen to see services expand as and when resources are available. Secondly, we shall be guided by choice and diversity ; we

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do not believe that one unique form of state -funded provision is in all possible circumstances the right answer either for the children or for their parents.

Special Educational Needs --

5. Dr. Liam Fox : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what effect grant-maintained status has had on the provision of special needs education spending.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : With grant-maintained status, schools have greater flexibility to provide for all pupils, including those with special educational needs, having regard "" as all schools must "" to the new special educational needs code of practice.

Dr. Fox : Will my hon. Friend perhaps take time to point that out to the Luddite and pernicious National Union of Teachers which is trying to spread fear among parents of special needs children ? Will my hon. Friend point that out because the parents of those children have been frightened by the propaganda put out by the NUT to try to persuade them to vote against opting out ?

Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend makes an important point. The sad truth is that the NUT is hopelessly out of step with virtually everyone these days, not least the other teaching unions. The task before us of trying to persuade the NUT and its membership of the value of what we are doing, not least in respect of special educational needs, is monumental but we shall not shrink from it. I am confident that grant-maintained schools are in a very strong position to join other schools in making increasingly good provision for special educational needs based on our widely welcomed code of practice. I have great confidence that that will be the case from this September forward.

Mr. Win Griffiths : The Minister completely failed to answer his hon. Friend's question. Will he admit that there have been cases, such as that of Highams Park school in Waltham Forest which, on becoming grant maintained a few years ago, refused to carry on educating children who were blind or partially sighted ? Another local authority school took over that responsibility without demanding extra funding. Is it not true that, time and again, there are cases of exclusions from GM schools of children with learning difficulties and behavioural problems which then have to be handled by maintained schools ? The Government have said many fine things in the code of practice, but they are failing to provide the money to do the job properly.

Mr. Forth : I regret that the hon. Gentleman has, in asking that question, departed from his usual very high standards of integrity. The fact is that none of what the hon. Gentleman says has any relationship to the truth. If he has allegations of the kind that he has made in a general sense today--not least the specific one, which is wrong--I want to hear about them. I am convinced that grant-maintained schools maintain the highest standards of provision for all their pupils, including those with special educational needs. If there are any cases of exclusion from any school on the basis of special educational needs, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let me have them as we shall want to look into them and take whatever action my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can take.

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Grant-maintained Schools --

6. Mr. Oppenheim : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received from county councils on grant-maintained schools.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : From time to time, I receive representations from individual county councils and the Association of County Councils ; they vary.

Mr. Oppenheim : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the questionnaire that Derbyshire county council sent to GM schools, accompanied by a letter saying that the council was concerned about the performance of those schools now that they are free of council control ? Bearing in mind that the county council's deputy leader has been gaoled for fraud and that the chief education officer has just left to sell contracted-out services to grant-maintained schools--both policies that he opposed when he was a Labour councillor--would not the county council be better advised to direct its searching inquiries inwards towards the council itself ?

Mr. Patten : I am not responsible in law for what goes on inside Derbyshire county council--I wish I were. I had not heard that the ex-chief education officer of Derbyshire county council had joined the grant- maintained sector ; I hope that that is the beginning of a trend. I believe that the leaflet and questionnaire that were circulated, which sought to intimidate the governors of GM schools--men and women who give up their time freely in the evenings--by asking what political parties they belong to, constitute a form of political intimidation which is becoming all too common in Labour areas such as Derbyshire and, for that matter, in Liberal- controlled areas such as Kent.

Mr. Skinner : Is the Minister aware that the parents of children who go to grant-maintained schools and--the great majority in Derbyshire--to local education authority schools are not worried about the issues put forward by the Minister, as was exemplified by the results last Thursday when in the three Derbyshire constituencies Labour voters numbered more than twice the number of Tory voters ? The right hon. Gentleman should advise his hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) to watch his back because he is going next.

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend needs no advice from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, with his background as a grammar school boy and someone who studied at Oxford, might be in a position to give some good advice to Derbyshire county council.

Lady Olga Maitland rose -- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. The House must come to order now. High spirits are one thing, but we are going a bit too far this afternoon.

Lady Olga Maitland : Is my right hon. Friend aware that parents at more than 1,000 schools in England and Wales have voted overwhelmingly in favour of grant-maintained status ? Does he agree that, contrary to the Labour party, they are exercising their right of choice ?

Mr. Patten : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. After all, all our universities are grant maintained, all our further education colleges are grant maintained, and all our sixth-form colleges are grant maintained. I look forward to the day when all our schools are grant maintained, too.

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7. Mr. Jamieson : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many schools, in the last six months for which figures are available, have held ballots for grant-maintained status ; what percentage have opted out ; and what were the equivalent figures for the same period last year.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on recent applications by schools for grant- maintained status.

Mr. Robin Squire : In the six months up to and including May, 176 schools held ballots on grant-maintained status and parents at 104 of those voted in favour of self-government. The equivalent figures for the corresponding period last year were 385 and 302 respectively. In addition to the current total of 928 self-governing schools, 115 more have already been approved for grant-maintained status or have applications in the pipeline.

Mr. Jamieson : Will the Minister note that, due to the rejection by parents of the Government's failed opting-out policies, the target set by the Secretary of State for Education of two thirds of secondary schools being opted out by the end of this Parliament will not be reached until the year 2072 ? Will he also congratulate the parents at Roskear primary school in Camborne, Cornwall, whose ballot result was announced yesterday ? On a very high turnout, 84 per cent. of them voted no.

Mr. Squire : Despite his education background, the hon. Gentleman is labouring under a few misunderstandings. There is no target for opting out schools. The hon. Gentleman tends to overlook the fact that, on average, three quarters of ballots result in a yes vote. More important, with self- governing schools we are seeing an increase in morale, a greater sense of achievement, greater value for money and, above all, more popularity with parents, as will be seen in September when in the main those schools are again over-full.

Mr. Arnold : Has my hon. Friend noticed the decision taken by 60 per cent. of the parents for St. Joseph's school Northfleet to become grant maintained, despite the wicked and misleading campaign of the Lib-Lab- controlled Kent county council which diverted £100,000 of education money to that wicked campaign ? Is it not the case that when parents and schools are ready to take 100 per cent. of the decisions and spend 100 per cent. of the education money on their schools, they will do so ?

Mr. Squire : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He speaks with knowledge of what self-government means in schools as there are eight such schools in his constituency ; his constituents are fortunate in that respect. It is undoubtedly the case that some local education authorities and Opposition Members are still trying to cling to political power via the control of schools. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State now has powers under the Education Act 1993 and he will not hesitate to use them if any seriously misleading information is circulated.

Mr. O'Hara : Given the Secretary of State's remarks about the grant- maintained status of universities, colleges and further education colleges, all of which were given that

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status by legislation, is the Minister suggesting that he looks forward to legislation to force all secondary schools to become grant maintained ?

Mr. Squire : That was a good try, but, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, the impetus for grant-maintained status remains the parental ballot. We believe that it is right to trust parents, whether it leads to a no vote, as the hon. Gentleman said it could, or, indeed--as we may touch on shortly--a yes vote elsewhere. It is up to the parents to decide. My Government and my party have no difficulty with that concept. It is strange that the hon. Gentleman and his party have such difficulty trusting parents.

Mrs. Angela Knight : Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the parents, governors, teachers and head teacher of St. John Houghton school in Ilkeston in my constituency who have just balloted successfully to become grant maintained, despite heavy opposition from Derbyshire county council ? Will he undertake to ensure that their proposals, which have been submitted to his Department, are scrutinised as quickly as possible and accepted before the end of the current school term so that the school has the whole summer to prepare for the implementation date at the beginning of September ?

Madam Speaker : Order. Questions are much too long. Both questions and answers must be much more brisk.

Mr. Squire : I certainly undertake to expedite the proposals on merit when they come in and determine whether the school can join other schools in my hon. Friend's constituency and, indeed, across the country which are finding the benefit of self-government.

Funding, Rotherham --

8. Mr. Denis MacShane : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will visit Rotherham to discuss funding of educational provision.

Mr. Forth : Department for Education officials visited Rotherham local education authority last Friday, 10 June, and discussed a range of education issues, including funding. They have briefed me on those discussions.

Mr. MacShane : Is the Minister aware that at the start of the next school term there will be 1,260 more children at school in Rotherham, but some 112 fewer teachers because of the cuts imposed by his Government ? Can he convey to the Secretary of State for Education the great distress of the parents and teachers of Rotherham at the decline in the three Rs in that borough and suggest to the Secretary of State that the new three Rs are reshuffle, resignation--his own--and right now ?

Mr. Forth : On reflection, the hon. Gentleman may regret the words that he has uttered because they are obviously an attack on the teachers and schools in his constituency. Every year, we get a ritualistic scare story from Labour Members about cuts in education and in the number of teachers. It has never been true in the past and it is not true this year, either. In a well-run local education authority and in schools which are well run as a result of taking responsible decisions with regard to their budgets, I am confident, and the evidence is, that the standard of teaching can and should increase ; if not, people should be accountable through their councillors and governors for what is happening.

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Mr. Tony Lloyd : In the event of further education colleges in Rotherham and, indeed, nationwide settling the dispute between college lecturers and college employers on the same basis as in Manchester college of arts and technology, will it be the Government's policy to insist on the holdback of moneys to further education, or will they accept that as a legitimate settlement ?

Mr. Forth : I slightly admire the hon. Gentleman's ingenuity, but I do not think that he is entitled to draw the sort of general conclusion from the specific that he is seeking to do. He knows well the new arrangements that have been put in place. If he thought about it, he would understand the sort of benefits that will be available in the further education sector from the new arrangements. As for asking the sort of question that he has, I suggest that he consider retabling the question to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education, who will give him a direct answer.

Student Grants --

9. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what was the value of the student grant in 1979 at current prices ; and what is its value in 1994.

Mr. Boswell : The total public resources available to students through the standard rate of grant and full-year student loan for the current academic year is £3,065, of which grant is £2,265. The value of the comparable rate of grant with no loan available for students domiciled in England and Wales in the academic year 1979-80 was £1, 287 ; its value at 1993-94 prices is £3,089.

Mr. McFall : Does not the Minister recognise that the student grant has been cut by one third since 1979 and, with students being worse off by £29.50 a week compared with people in similar circumstances on income support, they are now the poorest of the poor ? Is not that a ridiculous situation, both for the Government and for the future of this country ?

Mr. Boswell : The hon. Gentleman asserts that students are the "poorest of the poor". It is remarkable that they are in our universities and colleges in record numbers. While no one has ever suggested that students are highly remunerated, they are well able to live and to study on the resources which are made available to them by public funds, and the figures substantiate that.

Mr. Nigel Evans : How many students were in further and higher education in 1979 compared with 1994 and what has been the extra investment in education for young people in this country ?

Mr. Boswell : In 1979, approximately one in eight of our young people went to university. The proportion is now just below one in three. That is a huge expansion of which we are very proud.

Mr. John D. Taylor : Why do the Government prefer to give £10 million to encourage students from the Republic of Ireland to attend universities in the United Kingdom, rather than increase grants for United Kingdom students ?

Mr. Boswell : The right hon. Gentleman is aware of our obligations under the European Union and the Court's

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judgment requires us not to discriminate against students from other European Union countries who are studying in our country.

Mr. Forman : Is not it clear that the package of support that is available to students in this country is perfectly adequate and is not deterring increased participation ? Is not the priority now to ensure that the standards of higher education are rigorously maintained ?

Mr. Boswell : I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend has said from his experience, both in relation to the student support package and the essential importance of ensuring continuing quality in higher education.

Grant-maintained Schools --

10. Mr. Wareing : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans he has to enable schools which have opted out of local authority control to opt back in ; and if he will make a statement on the application of the principle of parental choice.

Mr. Robin Squire : We have no plans for such legislation-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. I know that hon. Members are all happy to see each other again, but the House must come to order.

Mr. Squire : The whole House unreservedly welcomes its latest four- legged addition. Perhaps it would help if I recommenced. We have no plans for such legislation and we have yet to hear of a self-governing school which wishes to return to local authority control. Parental choice is central to our education reforms and the option of GM status is a very important part of that.

Mr. Wareing : As not all parents have been as wise as those of the children of Croxteth community comprehensive school in my constituency in opposing opting out, and if the Government are really sincere about parental choice, would not it be correct for the Government to allow those parents who become--as inevitably they will--dissatisfied with opting out to ballot to opt back in to local authority control ? Is not the Government's policy driven by ideology and not by academic and parental choice ?

Mr. Squire : As I made clear earlier, we have no sign of any school which has experienced self-government wishing to switch back. On a management basis, it would not be an ideal way of organising education to have schools criss-crossing back between different forms of control.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned in passing the ballot at Croxteth. I know that he would wish me to mention that in Liverpool yesterday King David primary school voted yes to going grant-maintained.

Mr. Burns : Does my hon. Friend agree that the question that he just answered was particularly odd ? He knows, as do the governors and parents of grant-maintained schools, that no school in its right mind which has taken that crucial decision would ever consider opting back in to local education authority control, with all the problems of bureaucracy and restriction that would follow such a decision.

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