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House of Commons

Tuesday 1 November 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Humber Bridge Bill


Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the Promoters of the Humber Bridge Bill [Lords] shall have leave to suspend proceedings thereon in order to proceed with the Bill, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament, provided that the Agents for the Bill give notice to the Clerks in the Private Bill Office of their intention to suspend further proceedings not later than the day before the close of the present Session and that all Fees due on the Bill up to that date be paid;

That, if the Bill is brought from the Lords in the next Session, the Agents for the Bill shall deposit in the Private Bill Office a declaration signed by them stating that the Bill is the same, in every respect, as the Bill which was brought from the Lords in the present Session;

That, as soon as a certificate by one of the Clerks in the Private Bill Office, that such a declaration has been so deposited, has been laid upon the Table of the House, the Bill shall be deemed to have been read the first and shall be ordered to be read a second time;

That the Petitions against the Bill presented in the present Session which stand referred to the Committee on the Bill shall stand referred to the Committee on the Bill in the next Session;

That no Petitioners shall be heard before the Committee on the Bill, unless their Petition has been presented within the time limited within the present Session or deposited pursuant to paragraph (b) of Standing Order 126 relating to Private Business;

That, in relation to the Bill, Standing Order 127 relating to Private Business shall have effect as if the words under Standing Order 126 (Reference to committee of petitions against Bill)' were omitted;

That no further Fees shall be charged in respect of any proceedings on the Bill in respect of which Fees have already been incurred during the present Session;

That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House.-- [The Chairman of Ways and Means.]

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered a Second time on Tuesday 8 November.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Nursery Education

1. Sir Thomas Arnold: To ask the Secretary of State for Education if she will make a statement about nursery education.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mrs. Gillian Shephard): I am implementing the Prime Minister's commitment to provide, over time, good quality pre-school places for all four-year-olds whose parents wish to take them up.

Sir Thomas Arnold: What specific steps have been taken to implement that excellent new initiative?

Mrs. Shephard: I have appointed a task force to take the work forward and to consult widely. I shall welcome ideas and information from all sectors, and already the Council of Local Education Authorities and the Pre-School Playgroups Association have provided information. My ministerial colleagues have also met with a number of groups.

Mr. Spearing: In view of the statement that the Secretary of State has just made, why do the Government continue to block the Nursery Education (Assessment of Needs) Bill, which I introduced in February but which has been blocked on at least 12 occasions since? It would place a duty on local education authorities to assess the need for nursery education, as introduced by an all-party Government in 1944 under R.A. Butler. Is not that needed now, and will the right hon. Lady please reconsider her decision?

Mrs. Shephard: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking at a range of options for expansion, and a sound basis for that expansion will be provided by what already exists on the ground. A great deal of thought and work has gone into nursery provision, and we shall take account of the work that has been done by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Sir Malcolm Thornton: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this initiative and draw her attention to one of the recommendations that the Education Select Committee makes in its excellent report on provision for under-fives concerning the need to ensure an appropriate curriculum for nursery education, as a mere extension downwards of the primary curriculum is far from sufficient?

Mrs. Shephard: The objective will be to provide education for the early years, and not child minding. The Office for Standards in Education will be asked to draw up educational criteria.

Mr. Blunkett: I congratulate the Secretary of State for Education on her appointment at the end of July, and I look forward to crossing ideological swords with her. How much will the initiative cost, and where will the money come from?

Mrs. Shephard: May I, in turn, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment? I can reassure him that we are looking at a range of options for expansion, but

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we have not made a decision yet. The need for additional funding will be determined as part of the development of the policy, but it is new provision and there will be new money.

Books and Equipment

2. Mr. Knapman: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what has been the change in spending on books and equipment for schools since 1979.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): Spending on books and equipment in local education authority maintained schools in England increased by 28 per cent. in real terms between 1979-80 and 1992-93, the latest year for which figures are available. On a per-pupil basis, spending has increased by 56 per cent. in real terms over the same period. Equivalent information is not available for grant-maintained or independent schools.

Mr. Knapman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that encouraging reply. Will he compare the spending of Gloucestershire with that of the remainder of the country? Might any special additional funding be made available for the provision of books and equipment?

Mr. Squire: I can confirm that, broadly speaking,

Gloucestershire's spending on books and equipment is in line with the average for England. On a cash basis, the figures for Gloucestershire LEA are £63 per pupil in 1991-92 and £76 per pupil in 1992-93; the all-England figures are £70 per pupil in 1991-92, increasing to £75 per pupil in 1992-93.

On my hon. Friend's second question, there is in addition a fairly substantial grant for education, support and training worth approximately £79 million in the current year.

Ms Estelle Morris: Is the real question not what equipment schools have compared with 15 years ago but whether they are properly equipped to teach children to succeed and survive in the next century? Is the Minister aware that many schools still have to rely on parental contributions for essential items of education? Is he happy that how well a school is equipped should in part depend on the wealth of the parents whose children it serves?

Mr. Squire: The hon. Lady overlooks the fact that under the revolution inspired by local management of schools, let alone by grant- maintained schools, governing bodies can, and do, take such decisions themselves on the basis of the priorities as they see them for their school. As for her comment about voluntary activity, long may the well- established tradition continue in Britain whereby parents and friends of a school who wish to do so can contribute further to assist its development.

Mr. Patrick Thompson: Bearing in mind that local management of schools is acknowledged in my constituency and elsewhere as a total success, can my hon. Friend recall what Opposition Members said about it when it was introduced by the Government?

Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. As most of us will remember, most of the initiatives introduced by the Government in the past 10 years have been opposed by the Opposition, only in most cases for Opposition Members shamefacedly to admit eventually that, yes, they worked and that they will support them.

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Nursery Education

3. Mr. Tony Banks: To ask the Secretary of State for Education which countries of the European Union have a higher percentage of under-fives in nursery education than Britain.

The Minister of State, Department of Education (Mr. Eric Forth): The United Kingdom is one of only three countries in the European Union where universal state education starts at the age of five; elsewhere, it is at the age of six or even seven. Although data exist for participation rates in most of the countries of the European Union, they do not compare like with like because they do not, for example, clearly distinguish between education and child care, or take account of whether parents are required to contribute towards the cost.

Mr. Banks: I was asking the Minister about under-fives, not over- fives. I congratulate him on his selective use of

statistics--Disraeli would have been greatly impressed. If the French can manage to have 100 per cent. of three to four-year-olds in education and the Belgians can manage 94 per cent., should not we be able to achieve somewhat more than 50 per cent. of under-fives in education? Can the Minister bring himself to congratulate the London borough of Newham, which has the highest percentage of under-fives in nursery classes in the country? The most deprived local authority has achieved that. Will the Minister say something nice about Newham?

Hon. Members: Ah.

Mr. Forth: I suppose it is difficult to praise a constituency that returns the hon. Gentleman, but I might try on one of my better days. On this occasion, the hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically simplistic. It is surely not good enough to look at a percentage provision. We should look at the quality and effectiveness of the provision. There is no point in trading futile statistics. The fact that the hon. Gentleman claims that there is a certain provision in France says nothing about its nature, its quality or how much of it is paid for by the parents or the taxpayer.

We shall examine such matters, which will inform the review that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has initiated. When we make our proposals, they will take fully into account best practice in other countries and, indeed, in local education authorities. That will inform the review and the policies that we shall eventually place before the House.

Mr. Pawsey: Does my hon. Friend agree that the form of nursery education that may work in Lisbon or Athens need not necessarily be the right form of education in Newham or even Warwickshire? What role does my hon. Friend envisage that the Pre-School Playgroups Association will play in the provision of nursery education in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want, and already encourage, all those involved in pre-five provision to come to us with their thoughts and ideas. We want to take them fully into account and ensure that, whatever regime is eventually proposed, it will take full account of diversity of provision and the maximum

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parental choice, with a guarantee of quality so that we can ensure that pre-five education is of the best throughout the country. That will be our objective.

Mr. Steinberg: I am bewildered by the Minister's change in attitude to nursery provision. Why has he suddenly become an advocate of nursery provision when previously, time after time, he refused to acknowledge its benefits? Has he now seen the educational grounds for such provision, or has he seen that its introduction is a political necessity?

Mr. Forth: There is no contradiction or difficulty whatever here. The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have made it clear that we want to develop quality pre-school provision for under-fives. That is our objective and we want to ensure that what we do is carefully considered, properly based and properly delivered. Among other things, my objection has always been to some of the more half-baked and superficial ideas that have come from the Opposition, not least from the hon. Gentleman.

Grant-maintained Schools

4. Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many pupils are now being educated in self-governing grant-maintained schools; and what was the same figure one year ago.

6. Mr. Kilfoyle: To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many schools have opted for grant-maintained status in the last year; and what was the figure in the previous year.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: About 620,000 pupils are now being educated in grant-maintained schools, compared with about 480,000 this time last year. The present total includes almost a fifth of all secondary pupils.

During the same period, the number of grant-maintained schools has increased by 310, compared with 420 in the previous year.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer. Is she aware that the vast bulk of the parents, teachers and governors to whom I speak in Gloucestershire warmly welcome the Government's improvements, which enable them to run their schools independently under grant-maintained status? Is it not typical of the Opposition that they would seek to reverse our excellent reforms, which have so benefited the education of our children?

Mrs. Shephard: Grant-maintained schools are both popular and successful, and millions of parents are now keenly interested in them. The Opposition will no doubt now wish to sort out their stance on the matter, as that number includes at least one Labour Front-Bench spokesman.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Is the Secretary of State aware of the unsolicited distribution of 1,000 copies of the Department for Education video, "Our Children: Our Choice", to parents whose children attend West Monmouth school in Pontypool--parents who have already voted against grant- maintained status? In the interests of balanced and

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informed debate, will the right hon. Lady make available, in this instance and others, the equivalent case against the nationalisation of schools?

Mrs. Shephard: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment. I am not aware of the unsolicited distribution of videos. The Government intend to ensure that parents and governors who are considering opting out will continue to have adequate and full information about the benefits.

Mr. Wilkinson: May I remind my right hon. Friend that all the secondary schools in my constituency of Ruislip-Northwood, except a Church of England secondary school, Bishop Ramsay, have been opted-out schools for a number of years? So successful are they that pupils are sent to them by their parents from other boroughs, making it impossible for local parents in my constituency to send their children to their local opted-out secondary schools. Will she therefore change the Greenwich judgment and make borough boundaries less permeable?

Mrs. Shephard: It is very important that sensible admission policies be achieved by close co-operation between local education authorities and the Funding Agency for Schools. I am happy to look at the detail of my hon. Friend's case.

Mr. Don Foster: I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State on their recent appointments. I hope that we may now see some consensus in education in the next couple of years.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the importance, in the calculation of an individual school's grant, of the number of school meals that are consumed on census day each January? Will she condemn any school--such as one in Hampshire--that last year urged parents to persuade children to eat a school meal on census day to boost its grant? Will she instigate an inquiry into the reasons why this year, on census day, 25 per cent. more meals were eaten in each grant-maintained school than in each local education authority school? Was it another attempt by GM schools to take money from LEAs?

Mrs. Shephard: I am aware of the case, and it is being investigated by the FAS.


5. Mr. Viggers: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what are the latest figures she has for the number of 16-year-olds participating in part-time or full-time education; and what were the comparable figures for five years ago.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell): In the 1988-89 academic year, 473,000 16- year-olds participated in full-time or part-time education, representing a participation rate of nearly 70 per cent. For the 1993-94 academic year, the latest available figures show that the equivalent figures are 429,000 and 80 per cent.

Mr. Viggers: Does my hon. Friend agree that those figures are very satisfactory, and that they perhaps reflect the introduction of national vocational qualifications and general national vocational qualifications courses, which are thought by pupils to be very relevant to their

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aspirations? Indeed, a report on GNVQs, published today, described students' responses as "overwhelmingly positive". Does my hon. Friend agree that schools that do not offer GNVQ courses should be encouraged to do so, perhaps taking a leaf out of the book of St. Vincent college in my constituency, which he was good enough to visit recently?

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I very much enjoyed my visit to the college, with which I know he is very involved. It has excellent provision, reflecting a strong interest in, and a strong take-up of, vocational qualifications, both GNVQs and NVQs. We now find that the targets that we set for GNVQ involvement for 1996 have already been hit, and we are determined that those courses should deliver high-quality vocational education.

Mr. Hardy: I welcome the increase in the number of young people extending their education, but will the Minister recognise and acknowledge that it is not all good--that many young people who are staying on at school are doing so because there are no prospects of employment for them in many parts of the country?

Mr. Boswell: It is interesting that the figures for participation in further education began to increase before the recent recession, and have continued to increase during it. I would say to students at school or college during this period that the best possible guarantee for their future employment is high-grade education, whether academic or vocational.

Mr. Congdon: Given the recent reports on GNVQs, which expressed some worries, what steps does my hon. Friend intend to take to ensure that standards, which are most important, are rigorously maintained?

Mr. Boswell: I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of maintaining standards in vocational qualifications. In a sense, we anticipated those reports by setting out a six-point plan as early as this March. We are now pressing ahead, with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, on implementing that plan, and any other points, including the incorporation of core skills, that have arisen from recent reports.

Research Funding

7. Mrs. Ewing: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps she is taking to ensure equality of research funding throughout further and higher education establishments; and if she will make a statement.

Mr. Boswell: The Government are committed to ensuring value for money and accountability for public funds. We have asked the funding councils to allocate research funding selectively.

Mrs. Ewing: The Minister will agree that research plays an integral and critical role at our universities and higher education establishments, but will he advise the House of the criteria that will be used in assessing the efficiency of existing research and how decisions will be reached about future central funding, as not all funding

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comes from the private sector? Will he ensure that there is an equitable geographical basis for the funding of all research?

Mr. Boswell: I very much agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of research in higher education. I am somewhat surprised that she did not acknowledge the fact that the bulk of research funding continues to be derived from the Education Departments. Under our arrangements, there is a separate Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, which accounts for about one seventh of the English total of higher education funding. In both funding councils, my understanding is that research moneys are properly allocated selectively with regard to quality, and that quality is determined not by Ministers but by academic peer review.

Mr. Forman: Our further and higher education centres are tremendously dynamic and diverse, thanks to Conservative policies. Will my hon. Friend cling to the principles that have always informed that policy of supporting research, which is to back quality and centres of excellence?

Mr. Boswell: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his part in bringing about that high quality in higher education and the emphasis on diversity. I strongly emphasise the importance of quality and diversity of admission, which we are determined to secure at all times.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Does the Minister agree that, if lecturers are to maintain high standards in teaching, they will need to be actively involved in research? If he cannot guarantee equality in research funding, how can he guarantee equality of standards in teaching throughout higher education?

Mr. Boswell: It is for the funding councils to balance their funds between research and teaching. The hon. Lady will be aware that the bulk of those funds are spent on the teaching function. That is important, and we hope that as the system develops the balance of funding will reflect the quality of teaching.

Nursery Education

9. Mr. Rathbone: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what discussions she has had with private providers of nursery schooling in preparation for the introduction of the Government scheme.

Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend has not yet had any discussions with private providers of nursery education. However, she has made arrangements to visit a private day nursery and an independent school nursery class shortly. She will also be meeting delegates from the Early Childhood Education Forum which represents, among others, private providers, during the course of the consultation exercise. We expect private nursery classes and schools to play a full part in the expansion and to add to the rich diversity of current provision.

Mr. Rathbone: The House will be grateful to the Minister for that answer and for his commitment to quality in nursery education, which he gave in answer to an earlier question. May I have his further reassurance that there will be consultations with some well-known international organisers of nursery education, such as

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Montessori, which set such a high standard for nursery education? I hope that the new Government nursery schools will emulate that standard.

Mr. Forth: Yes, I am able to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. I hope to visit a Montessori school in the near future. Beyond that, it is very much in our interests to get from all the providers as much input, information and advice as we can. We want to ensure that our proposals are firmly based on the best of existing practice, so that we can build on that and incorporate a quality guarantee. Only by extensive and continuing consultation over the next few months are we likely to be able to do so.

Mr. Burden: As the Prime Minister's recent statements on nursery education are different from those of the previous Secretary of State, surely there are three possibilities: first, that there has been a change of policy; secondly, that the previous Secretary of State did not mean what he said; or, thirdly, that the Prime Minister does not mean what he says. Which is it?

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman overlooks the simple process of policy evolution. If he cares to consider carefully what has gone on in the past few months he will see that policy is evolving before his very eyes. In the capable hands of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that process of evolution will speed up gradually but steadily, and in the new year we shall unveil our new policies. At that time, the hon. Gentleman will see how superficial his comments are.

Schools, Bedfordshire

10. Sir David Madel: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations she has received from Bedfordshire county council for increases in capital expenditure on maintained schools for the period after 1994-95; and if she will make a statement.

Mr. Robin Squire: Bedfordshire LEA has recently submitted its bid for capital support for schools in 1995-96. The degree to which that bid reflects the national priority criteria for the distribution of capital will determine the authority's annual capital guideline for 1995-96, which I expect to announce in December.

Sir David Madel: Will my hon. Friend be able to respond positively to the specific request by Bedfordshire county council that just over £4 million be spent on Cedars upper school, which is popular, successful and becoming over-subscribed and in urgent need of that money to enable it to expand?

Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable on education matters, makes a persuasive case. However, I hope that he will understand if I stand by my answer to his first question. We shall assess all basic need bids, such as the one for Cedars upper school to which he referred, in line with our published criteria. We shall, of course, take into account both projected demand in the area and local surplus places.

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Drug Abuse

11. Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what action she is taking to combat drug abuse in schools.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: The Department is playing a full part in the Government's strategy for drug prevention.

Mr. Whittingdale: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to eliminate drug abuse, it must be tackled at the earliest opportunity-- through education in the classroom? Does she further agree that the worst possible message that we could send to our young people would be to legalise soft drugs, as the Liberal Democrat party would do?

Mrs. Shephard: I agree with my hon. Friend. Education on drugs is part of the national curriculum from five to 16. Indeed, references to drugs have been maintained in the new slimmed-down curriculum. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) began his question this afternoon by asking for consensus. I assure him that there will be never be consensus from the Conservative party on legalising drugs of any kind.

Mr. Miller: Does the Secretary of State share my concern at the advice given by a spokesperson for the Liberal and

Conservative-controlled Cheshire county council, who told one of my staff this week that there is no drugs problem in our local schools? Does she agree that it is a problem which affects all schools throughout the United Kingdom and that our education representatives locally and nationally should be taking an active interest in it?

Mrs. Shephard: Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The recently announced Government initiative in the Green Paper made education a matter of key concern in the battle against drugs. Drugs are an educational issue as well as a social evil. It is important to remove the stigma from those schools that make a stand against drugs. Drugs are an issue for all schools and for all of us.

Mr. Rowe: Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the most effective instruments for improving supervision in schools would be to welcome volunteers into schools to assist teachers in a wide variety of different functions? Apart from anything else, there would be two pairs of eyes in the classroom rather than just one.

Mrs. Shephard: Next week, I shall be launching a draft circular as a basis for consultation on teaching about drugs and the handling of drugs- related incidents. We expect the consultation to result in many excellent ideas for good practice from across the country, some of which may include those put forward by my hon. Friend.

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