Read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.
Lords ] Considered ; to be read the Third time.
1. Ms Corston : To ask the Secretary of State for Education when he last met representatives of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations to discuss Government education policies for pre-school age children.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Robin Squire) : My right hon. Friend has not met the National Confederatioof Parent-Teacher Associations recently to discuss education policies for pre- school age children. Arrangements are in hand for the Minister of State to meet the NCPTA shortly. The NCPTA has requested that the meeting cover issues other than education provision for under-fives.
Ms Corston : As this may be the last appearance of the Minister and the Secretary of State for Education at the Dispatch Box, will they agree as a matter of urgency to meet parent-teacher representatives to discuss the report from the National Foundation for Educational Research which supports Labour's policy of offering nursery education to all three and four-year-olds, and which flatly rejects the Government's inadequate compromise of putting children into school a year early ? What is the Government's policy on nursery education ?
On the issue of slightly greater substance, we note that the hon. Lady has committed her party to that policy on pre-school provision without seeing the bill for it. Our policy remains clear. We wish to see an expansion of the provision for under-fives across the range of different sorts of education as and when resources are available. We shall be coming up with more developments in the near future.
Mr. Griffiths : Not only do I wish the Minister a happy birthday, I wish him many more. I was pleased to hear that there is some inkling of support for nursery education and expansion from the Government. Why will not the Government introduce targets for developing the expansion of nursery education ? Will the Minister take this opportunity to repudiate the article in the Evening Standard on 29 June where Sheila Lawlor said that she feared that the introduction of universal nursery education could be one of the most disastrous social experiments of our time ? I hope that he will reject that and support Labour's policy for expanding nursery education.
Mr. Squire : My understanding is that Sheila Lawlor is not currently a member of the Administration, although--referring back to the question of the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston)--who knows ? I think that it is most unlikely. The fact remains that there are Conservative councils with a proud record on nursery education and in other areas of providing playgroups, which, I remind the hon. Gentleman, some 40 per cent. of three and four-year-olds currently attend. Many of those playgroups provide an excellent service for under-fives.
The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : The Government have given parents the right to express a preference for their choice of school, to a great deal more information and to a wider choice of schools through, for instance, the expansion of the self-governing grant- maintained sector, city technology colleges and technology colleges. Even greater diversity and choice is on the horizon with the possibility of schools specialising in other areas of study, such as languages or the arts, or selecting on grounds of aptitude and ability wholly or in part-- including more grammar schools.
Dr. Wright : Does the Minister recall that, in each of the past two years, Five Ways primary school in my constituency, a successful and popular school, has had its application for expansion rejected by the Department on the ground that there are surplus places in schools within a two-mile radius ? Parents and governors, having heard about the circular issued by the Department on 22 June--typically, replies were invited by 5 August--now believe that this successful school is to be allowed to expand. Are they right ?
Mr. Patten : I cannot limit my discretion in the case of any school before considering it. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's question. I recall his raising it at least twice before during questions, and I believe that, in an Adjournment debate, he discussed the desire of the parents of Five Ways school to have it expanded--even though there are surplus school places and other, less popular, schools within a reasonable distance.
Column 813We shall consider any future application purely on its merits, but I applaud the way in which the hon. Gentleman is bringing to the attention of the House the fact that local parents want popular schools to expand.
Mr. Butterfill : When he next visits Bournemouth, will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to see the wide variety of schools there ? We have traditional grammar schools and comprehensive schools that are gaining better results than any others in the country, but we also have grant- maintained schools and secondary schools that offer a wide variety of vocational courses. There is also a thriving independent sector. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the sort of choice we need to offer parents ? Will he condemn the Liberal Democratic and Labour parties for trying to close down that choice ?
Mr. Patten : I have always condemned both those parties and, for good measure, I will include Plaid Cymru for wanting to close down the range of opportunities the other side of Offa's dyke. I am happy to condemn anyone else whom my hon. Friend wants me to condemn. I am sorry to say that it is at least three weeks since I last visited my hon. Friend's constituency. I know that there is an excellent and wide range of schools in Bournemouth. Ideally, most towns would have the same range of choice. That is a great deal more difficult in rural areas, and we must bend our thoughts more towards how we can expand variety and choice in those areas and look after the small rural primary schools.
Mr. Patten : Nine out of 10 parents get their children into the school that they want--an extremely good piece of news--and there is an appeals mechanism for those who are dissatisfied. The hon. Gentleman is on to a good thing, however. I hope that he will lead other members of his party, including the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), who represents the NUT, to swing in behind our policy of allowing popular schools to expand and to deliver local excellence.
Mr. Patten : I am pleased to report that, to date, parents at 1,134 schools in England have voted for self-governing GM status, compared with about 350 at the time of the previous general election. Unfortunately, parents at nine out of 10 schools have not yet had the opportunity to vote in a ballot.
Mr. Brown : Is not it true that there have been few successful ballots in south Humberside because of intimidation by the NUT and by Humberside county council ? Until my right hon. Friend persuades the Secretary of State for the Environment to abolish the county of Humberside, we shall have much more work to do on this score in south Humberside.
Mr. Patten : I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says about the unfortunate situation in his area. I will convey his views to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I agree that we have a lot more work to do--although I welcome the support for our policies that is emerging from the Opposition. For instance, I understand that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is sending her son to a grant-maintained school in London in two months' time. That must make for interesting discussions in the shadow Cabinet, in which the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who is firmly in favour of abolishing grant-maintained schools, serves.
Mr. Jack Thompson : Is the Secretary of State aware that in Northumberland, the metropolitan boroughs of Tyne and Wear and Durham, only one school has opted out, and that was by a dubious two votes ? Does not that reflect the good sense of the people of the north-east of England ?
Mr. Patten : As the late Sir Winston Churchill said, one vote is enough in all circumstances, including parliamentary elections. I regret the fact that there are not more grant-maintained schools in the north-east among the 1,134 that have voted to become grant maintained, but it is entirely right and proper that parents should have the chance to express their views. If, however, those parents and those schools are subject to the type of intimidatory action, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) referred, which took place in Humberside, in County Durham and in Newcastle, supported by the National Union of Teachers on every occasion, it is not surprising that that intimidation has sometimes worked.
Sir Anthony Durant : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the large number of schools that have become grant maintained. Will he, as a matter of urgency, consider Prospect school in my constituency, which had an outstanding ballot by the parents, and whose application the Labour party has done all that it can to block ?
Mrs. Ann Taylor : Will the Secretary of State accept the thanks of the Opposition for his attempts to trail the Labour party's education document--a document agreed by all three leadership contenders--which says that we must end GM status and abolish the Funding Agency for Schools ? Will the Minister also confirm that, of the 24,706 primary and secondary schools in England and Wales, there are only 944 grant-maintained schools, which is about 4 per cent ? Is not it a fitting symbol of the failure of the Secretary of State and his GM policy that, last month, not a single secondary school in the country decided to become grant maintained ?
Mr. Patten : The mystery deepens, Madam Speaker. I am becoming more and more perplexed as to how it is possible for the hon. Member for Peckham, who is sending her boy to a grant-maintained school this September, to sit in the same shadow Cabinet as the hon. Member for Dewsbury, who wishes not only to abolish grant-maintained schools, but to abolish A-levels, city
Column 815technology colleges, performance tables, grammar schools, selection and almost everything else that has led to advances in children's education.
Mr. Patten : I will not hesitate to transfer failing schools to education associations when appropriate. About 10 schools have been declared failing so far. A number of cases for the use of educational associations are under active consideration.
Mrs. Lait : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue of poorly performing schools has been swept under the carpet for too long ? Can he assure me that he will be resolute in taking action against schools that fail pupils and parents, and introduce education associations as and when necessary ?
Mr. Patten : When and if necessary, I will not hesitate to do so. I entirely agree that for too long information about schools was swept under the carpet. The hon. Member for Dewsbury and her Labour team oppose the regular and open inspection of schools and the publication of results. They oppose the publication of performance information for schools. They oppose giving parents the information that they need to help to promote the welfare of their children.
Mr. Jamieson : If the Secretary of State genuinely believes that education associations can combat low standards in schools, why does not he send an education association in to some of the private schools, such as Finborough school in Suffolk or Rodney school in Nottinghamshire, which receive a large proportion of their funding from the taxpayer through the service children's boarding schools allowance, and yet have the most damning inspectorate reports ?
Mr. Patten : I am not aware of the reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I shall take the trouble to inform myself about them when I return to my Department this afternoon, because I know that the hon. Gentleman is a serious player in the education world. He is a member of the Education Select Committee which, as recently as a few weeks ago, heard a number of distinguished professors, including Professor Michael Barber, until recently a fully paid member of the NUT's team and now the professor of education at Keele, and Professor Mortimer, who said that we have to expect and demand more from children. Professor Mortimer, who is not exactly a running dog of mine and who is professor of education at the university of London, also said that, at long last, educators were looking at teaching in schools rather than at peripheral issues.
Column 816issued to all schools guidance on pupil behaviour and discipline based on existing good practice. The guidance aims to help them to maintain and improve discipline.
Mr. Coombs : Is my hon. Friend aware that the added emphasis on the important role of parents in disciplinary matters has been widely welcomed ? How does he envisage that role being expanded ? What experience does he have of other European Governments' attempts to tackle the important problem of maintaining discipline in schools so that children have the right environment in which to learn ?
Mr. Forth : My hon. Friend makes two valuable points. We should always learn from others when that is appropriate, but I suspect that in this area, where so much is bound up in tradition and custom and in the approach of individual countries, what is done in other countries--no matter how excellent it may seem--may not in any sense be directly transferable to this country, but I would never rule it out.
My hon. Friend's point about parents is good. We have done everything possible to encourage parental involvement in schools, whether through parents being governors or through joining parent-teacher associations and so on. Their involvement in discipline is the key. We cannot expect teachers and head teachers to deal with discipline without the support of parents. Unless parents are whole-heartedly prepared to support what goes on in schools, we shall win only half the battle.
Mr. Bryan Davies : Does not good discipline start at the top ? What is the world of education to make of a Secretary of State who plays truant during major stages of the Education Bill, who shows such a lack of self- discipline that he ends up in court, and who is rapidly becoming the Maradona of British politics ? Is not it about time that he was shown the red card and sent home ?
Mr. Forth : That ill-conceived question shows the absolute and desperate paucity of the Opposition's thoughts on education. We hear nothing from them about policy, about their thinking or anything else. The hon. Gentleman's disgraceful question sums up their attitude all too well.
Mr. Forth : Allowing for local authority changes of function, Dorset's education standard spending assessment is 4.2 per cent. higher in 1994-95 than it was last year. That is a higher than average increase across the counties.
Mr. Atkinson : Is my hon. Friend aware that the 4.2 per cent., which follows the 27 per cent. increase for the previous three years and which is well ahead of the rate of inflation, will come as some surprise to primary school teachers in my constituency and to those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), who were led to believe by Dorset local education authority that the fact that they have to face classes of up to 35 is due to a lack of Government funding ? Will the Minister join us in welcoming the recommendation of the Local Government
Column 817Commission that Bournemouth should once again be responsible for its own schools ? Will he assure us that any future Bournemouth education standard spending assessment will better reflect the needs and costs of an urban area rather than those of the west country, which is currently the case ?
Mr. Forth : I am sure that, guided by my hon. Friends who so ably represent Bournemouth, the people of Bournemouth will make known to the commission their support for the recommendation. That is the best thing that they can do at this stage, following what my hon. Friend said. I agree that it is disgraceful that a large number of local education authorities pretend that, somehow, cuts in the money given to them by central Government are responsible for their mismanagement of local education. I join my hon. Friend in alerting people to the fact that under many of the new administrations that people so innocently elected a year ago something is rotten in the state of education.
Mr. Don Foster : In view of that answer, can the Minister explain why the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), told a delegation from Dorset on 9 March that there were insufficient funds available to meet the educational needs of the children of Dorset ?
Mr. Forth : I shall have to discuss that matter with my hon. Friend to find out whether what the hon. Gentleman says is true. Knowing my hon. Friend as well as I think I do, and even allowing for his age increase since that meeting, I doubt whether what the hon. Gentleman says is the case.
Every local education authority in the country is funded on exactly the same basis, derived from the same formula, in an even-handed way. One point on which I do agree with the hon. Gentleman is that there is an enormous variation in the efficiency and effectiveness with which local education authorities deploy the funds given to them.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : In January 1993, 44 per cent. of children under five were being taught in maintained nursery schools and classes in Rotherham local education authority, of whom 6 per cent. were in nursery schools.
Mr. MacShane : Will the Under-Secretary of State convey to the Secretary of State our objection to the unnecessary and offensive references to the children of hon. Members ? Children of hon. Members, from both sides of the House, should not be used as political footballs.
On the question of nursery education, will the hon. Gentleman invite Conservative councils to achieve the same target as that achieved in Rotherham for three to five-year-olds ?
Column 818testimony to the worth of the Government's education policies. Some 90 per cent. of children aged three and four enjoy some sort of pre-school nursery provision, which exemplifies the virtues of choice and diversity and the excellent provision of places according to need. We are anxious to build on that as resources allow.
Mr. Forth : I pay tribute to the conscientious commitment of most teachers to the principle and implementation of the national curriculum for the benefit of pupils, as confirmed by that research. The findings of Warwick university's report on teachers' workload have been overtaken by the Dearing review and the Government's subsequent proposals for reductions in the content of the national curriculum.
Mr. Pickthall : Does the Minister appreciate the seriousness of much of what is in the Warwick university report, which shows that large numbers of primary school teachers suffer from what it calls burn-out from increased illness, increased drinking and an average 56-hour week ? As that follows years of incessant change and increased bureaucracy, do the Government accept responsibility ? Would not it be a good idea if the Minister or one of his ministerial colleagues spent a month teaching a year six class in a primary school ? They would then realise the Herculean task that faces teachers in that sector.
Mr. Forth : I counsel the hon. Gentleman against what the authors of the report described as premature extrapolation--taking some of its findings and drawing unmerited conclusions from them. If the hon. Gentleman seriously thinks that unqualified teachers should be allowed into classrooms, for whatever motive, he should ask the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), who is sitting at his left hand, whether he would approve.
The report contains much that is worthy of thought and consideration and I would not want to dismiss it in any way. However, the picture that the hon. Gentleman portrays of our schools is wholly at odds with that which I and my ministerial colleagues see when we visit schools, as we do so often.
Sir Malcolm Thornton : Does my hon. Friend accept the evidence that has come before the Education Select Committee which shows that much of the work done by the Dearing review has resulted in a decrease in the workload in our schools ? However, much remains to be done, especially in the area increasingly being called non-contact time. I refer my hon. Friend to the excellent Select Committee report, due to be published tomorrow, which deals with those very problems.
Mr. Forth : Lest prematurity become rampant, I--and I am sure my hon. Friend, who chaired the Select Committee so ably--would not want to reveal the contents of the Select Committee report at this stage. However, I very much look forward--as do we all--to studying it carefully, as I am sure that it will add greatly to our knowledge and inform us as to the way ahead.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : Does the Minister acknowledge that the report shows that all the Government's changes over the past few years have not succeeded in raising standards among young people ; that they have increased stress and anxiety for many dedicated teachers ; and that the picture is far from the rosy one that he was painting a moment ago ? Will he confirm that early retirement of teachers on health grounds is now at record levels and costing taxpayers record amounts of money and that our schools are losing valuable and dedicated staff ? Will he now accept that the frequent chopping and changing and the constant experimentation that have been the hallmark of the past two years have been costly to the taxpayer and, more important, have done great educational damage to our children ?
Mr. Forth : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me to look closely again at the terms on which teachers are allowed to retire early, whether on health or on other grounds. Some of the schemes would bear closer examination than they have received until now. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of the matter and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would say, I shall look at it as soon as I get back to the Department.
Mr. Robin Squire : Nine hundred and thirty schools educating well over 500,000 pupils are currently self-governing. A further 125 schools have already been approved for grant-maintained status or have applications in the pipeline.
Mr. Duncan Smith : Is the Minister aware that parents at Whitefield school, which is a special school in my constituency, have voted to go grant maintained as a result of recent legislation giving them the power to do so ? Does he agree that, despite the opposition of Labour-controlled local authorities, we should encourage all the other special schools to do exactly the same ?
Mr. Squire : My hon. Friend no doubt accepts that I cannot give him from the Dispatch Box this afternoon a firm announcement on the outcome of that positive ballot. With regard to his other comments, I can assure him that we shall endeavour to meet the tight deadlines and guidelines on that particular application as soon as possible. I entirely endorse his recommendation that all schools--special and mainstream--should be considering grant-maintained status as a way forward.
Mr. Steinberg : I thank the Secretary of State for his constant references to the National Union of Teachers : they help us to maintain our high profile. I appreciate his constant mention of the NUT. Does the Minister accept that his predecessor was totally wrong when he said that there would be an avalanche of schools opting out, and that the whole system has now become a complete failure ? Why cannot he be magnanimous in defeat and accept the policy as a highly expensive failure ?
Column 820children who are currently being educated in grant-maintained schools--and, of course, the number will be rising in September.
Mr. Boswell : The further education charter sets out, for the first time, the information and services that students, employers and others have a right to expect from the sector. It explains what is being done to ensure high standards and what to do if things go wrong. Colleges are now preparing their own charters to reflect local circumstances.
Mr. Spring : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that local colleges prepare their charters based on local needs and assessments of local conditions ? Is my hon. Friend aware that that is precisely what West Suffolk college in my constituency has done, and that that college's approach is reflected in the excellent grades awarded to it by the Further Education Funding Council in its recent inspection ?
Mr. Boswell : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The charters are extremely important. They should be firmed up locally to meet local needs, just as colleges' delivery of education should be appropriate to local needs. I join him in paying tribute to the excellent work of the college, which in a recent inspection had grades 1 or 2 for all subject areas but three--a fact which reflects very well both on the college and the quality of the systems that we are putting in place.
Mr. Dafis : Does the Minister acknowledge that competition between colleges of further education and between those colleges and sixth forms can sometimes give rise to bad feeling and duplication of courses and provision ? Will he advise such institutions to have a collaborative relationship, to minimise misuse of resources and encourage co-operation of the best kind ?
Mr. Boswell : I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments. Essentially, I see no reason why collaboration cannot co-exist with a degree of competition in particular areas. In that spirit, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State brought forward proposals earlier this year for a framework for the assessment of new sixth-form provision, to be considered alongside the overall need for post-16 education.
Mr. Forth : Total central Government support for capital and repair work at schools in 1994-95 is more than £600 million. Local education authorities can and do add to that substantial sum. In 1992-93--the latest year for which figures are available--LEAs spent an additional £550 million on school repairs and maintenance and a further estimated £140 million on capital works. Subject to
Column 821the outcome of current public expenditure survey discussions, Government support is planned to rise in 1995-1996 and 1996-97.
Mr. Janner : Is the Minister aware that a great number of schools throughout the country are in a disgraceful state of disrepair, largely because local authorities do not have the money to add to central grants to put their schools in a fit state to receive our children ? Will the Minister consider that matter and especially the cost of repairs caused by vandalism, which is causing chaos in Leicester schools ? One school may have to close because the LEA cannot meet the cost of repairing it.
Mr. Forth : The last detailed study by the National Audit Office in 1991 described many schools as being in a better or acceptable state of decoration and repair and stated that schools were safe places in which to learn and work. I concede that many schools require repairs, which is why so much money is allocated by the Department to LEAs. They have the discretion that I mentioned in my original reply, and I expect them to be sensitive to the kind of problem that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised with me on a number of occasions. LEAs determine their own priorities, and even schools determine their priorities under local management of schools and budget allocations. They are often able to take their own steps. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman accepts that that is a better way of dealing with the issue than the Government's determining from the centre the priorities of 24,000 schools.
Mr. Forman : Will my hon. Friend consider including under the rubric of school repairs the equally important task of upgrading facilities that are much in demand ? Will he consider with his officials the reasonable capital bid by Wallington county grammar school for boys for a new integrated science block, which would help that school maintain its high standard of science studies ?
Mr. Forth : I should have been surprised if the question had not prompted just the sort of reasonable request that my hon. Friend made. I undertake closely to examine the case that he has raised. I am delighted that many schools that my colleagues and I visit have work in train and are doing precisely as my hon. Friend says--building new facilities and providing new equipment. I welcome that--as, I am sure, does my hon. Friend
Mr. Simpson : Does the Minister agree that, with so many pupils being educated in a substandard educational environment, and even if the Government come up with a decent capital programme, LEAs should be at liberty to borrow freely against their entire asset bases to guarantee a decent school environment for every child ?
Mr. Forth : That is all very well, but the hon. Gentleman should consider the extent to which some authorities--I will not name them on this occasion--frittered away on other things money that was supposed to be spent on education. We need a lot more persuading that they can be trusted to do as the hon. Gentleman says before we go down that route.
Mr. Patten : This year's tables will include more information than ever before under the parents charter. There will be additional information on achievements in vocational qualifications, including successes in the new vocational A-level. We shall also provide for the first time information on levels of authorised as well as unauthorised absence, and on classroom teaching time, in every secondary school.
Mr. Jenkin : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the importance of league tables is that they do not simply measure outcomes, but measure what has been added ? Does he share my expectation that schools in all areas, whatever the social background, should be able to achieve excellent results ?
Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the post-war years we have been totally taken up with the inputs into the education system. We should be much more concerned with the outputs. It is the value added by education in schools that should concern us. That is why I was so pleased to see the recent evidence laid before the Education Select Committee, in which learned witness after learned witness said that what was really important was a combination of higher expectations and a greater concentration on teaching and learning. It is odd that some of the learned professors have not been doing that for the past 25 years.
Mr. Madden : Will the Secretary of State publish figures showing the schools where teaching staff have been made redundant as a result of the loss of section 11 funding ? In his last few days in office, will he do everything possible to ensure that section 11 funding is available to give children of ethnic minority origin the maximum support in understanding, speaking and writing English ?
Mr. Patten : I know of the hon. Gentleman's long-standing interest in matters affecting people from ethnic minority backgrounds in his constituency in Bradford, and I appreciate his attention and care for them over the years. However, I am extremely concerned that some section 11 money may be used to carry on the teaching of second languages--the languages learnt at home--when really, if we want all our children to be good, high-performing British citizens, the most important thing is that they be taught the English language.