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House of Commons

Friday 9 December 1994

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Brentwood Transfusion Centre

9.35 am

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I wish to present a petition on behalf of my constituents in Brentwood and Ongar and on behalf of other electors within Essex concerning the potential closure of the blood transfusion centre at Brentwood. The petition has attracted more than 100,000 signatures and it reads:

To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled

The Humble Petition of the blood donors, patients, blood transfusion staff, hospital staff and the general public, who are served by and serve the formally named North East Thames Regional Blood Transfusion Centre

Sheweth that their wonderful establishment is sited within the boundary of my constituency of Brentwood and Ongar. The Brentwood Blood Transfusion Centre collects, processes, tests and supplies blood for transfusion to the wider area of North East London, Essex and surrounding counties. The Centre is the most effective means by which blood donors can continue to help hospital patients by simply giving the gift of life.

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House ask the Secretary of State for Health to reverse the recommended closure of the Blood Transfusion Centre at Brentwood.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, etc. To lie upon the Table .

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Education (Standards)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]

9.36 am

The Minister of State, Department of Education (Mr. Eric Forth): I hope that hon. Members consider the debate as a welcome opportunity for us to discuss the important matter of standards in education in a more leisurely and determined way, as we can on Fridays.

I hope that hon. Members would also agree that there appears to be increasing political agreement on the achievement of those standards. I say "appears to be", because today will give us the opportunity to explore how much common ground exists between us and to discover where the odd political difference may still arise. Whatever those differences, as we approach the festive season, I welcome, in the spirit of generosity, the apparent recent conversion of at least some Opposition Members to our long- held view that standards and quality in education are and always must be of prime importance.

Standards and quality are the backdrop to the debate. Their achievement means that every child is provided with the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential and to enjoy access to knowledge, so that their skills are developed to equip them for life beyond education.

I submit to the House that the achievement of the objectives of standards and quality in education depends upon the successful implementation of a number of mechanisms, designed exactly to deliver those objectives that we have developed over the past 15 years. Those mechanisms are the national curriculum; regular and objective assessment and testing; publication of school performance data; regular inspection by independent inspectors; maximum choice and involvement for parents in the schooling of their children; procedures to deal with failing schools; effective provision for pupils with special educational needs; maximum access to post-16 provision; and effective development of pre-five education provision. That list is not necessarily exhaustive, but it might provide a good framework for the debate that we shall have in the House today. My submission, it will not surprise anyone to hear, is that the Government are playing their full part in developing all the approaches that I have outlined to provide the appropriate framework and mechanisms for delivering quality and standards in education for all our young people.

I shall begin, because this is the most appropriate place in my speech, by saying a few words about the national curriculum. It is an oddity that, until the late 1980s, we had no national curriculum in Britain. Looking back now, that seems rather bizarre to many people. The truth is that, until that time, pupils up and down the country had no guarantee of access to a comprehensive range of subjects and knowledge in schools.

Since the late 1980s, we have progressively put in place a national curriculum which sets out to provide exactly that guarantee; to deliver to our young people in schools a proper range of subject matter in order that they will be better fitted to deal with life beyond education. That surely is of the utmost importance. It must be right, must it not, that every child in the land has that same access to

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knowledge and subject material across a wide range of subjects? That is what the national curriculum sets out to do.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): It is a straitjacket.

Mr. Forth: We acknowledge that it should not be a straitjacket in any sense, and that it should have an element of flexibility. That is why we have identified core subjects, which are of the utmost and overwhelming importance: English, maths and science, and the other subjects, which remain of the greatest importance. An element of flexibility within the curriculum enables teachers and heads in schools to alter the emphasis of education as they see fit in their individual school circumstances and to suit their needs.

There is now broad agreement, in education and beyond, that the complementary approach of core subjects and flexibility gives us an approach to the curriculum which is appropriate for the 1990s and beyond. Beyond that, the work done recently by Sir Ron Dearing and his authority to look again at the curriculum in the light of recent criticisms has produced a document which I am confident has widespread support throughout education and gives us a firm basis on which we can now proceed. Sir Ron is indisposed at the moment. I send him my best wishes for a speedy recovery, and, I hope, those of all hon. Members present.

That firm basis is important, because we need the co-operation, support and participation of everyone in education so that we can make the best use of the curriculum material and use it to the advantage of our young people. By "everyone" I mean, obviously, teachers, head teachers and governors of schools; but I also certainly mean parents. We must constantly remind parents, if they need any reminding, that their participation in the education process is vital. We must look to them to provide that.

Closely related to the curriculum is regular objective assessment and testing of pupils. I should have thought that that was beyond doubt and beyond debate, but we have had some difficulty in bringing everyone in education along with us in our stated objective of ensuring that there is a mechanisms and a procedure to provide for the objective testing and assessment of pupils at key stages in their development.

There are several reasons for that. I should have thought that everyone would want to ensure that we know what the progress of each pupil has been as a pupil moves through education, so that parents can know, pupils themselves can know and teachers can know, and so that we can emphasise those matters which require greater attention and provide comparative information for parents, teachers and the public at large about what is happening throughout education. So, with our key stage tests at seven, 11, 14 and 16, together with the established GCSEs and A-levels and the developing general national vocational qualifications in our schools, we now have an arrangement whereby we can be confident that we can properly assess the progress of pupils as they go through education and report on it appropriately. There has been some difficulty in some quarters in accepting that, but I believe that we have now reached a stage where it is more and more widely

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acknowledged that testing is the correct approach. It is welcomed very much, certainly by parents, and increasingly by teachers. There is now broad agreement that our approach is the best and most appropriate.

I say "broad", because some remain to be convinced. For example, some members of the National Union of Teachers apparently still remain to be convinced. The NUT recently conducted a survey of its members. Only some one in four took the trouble to respond. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of that one in four expressed themselves still dissatisfied with the testing and assessment arrangements that we have in place.

However, against that, one has to point out that the other five teachers' unions--and, by implication, three out of four even of NUT members--are sufficiently satisfied with the testing and assessment arrangements that they are prepared to give them a fair wind and support them. I hope that that is the case, because it cannot be to the benefit of the pupils in our schools to have constant disruption and unpredictability from one term and from one year to the next.

Mr. Skinner: When the school testing was first initiated, and it became a matter for public discussion, people on different sides took different views. As a matter of interest, I still oppose the idea, because I do not believe that testing per se is the only measure of intelligence. When the newspapers decided to see what Tory Members of Parliament knew about tests, they asked them certain questions. Every Tory Member failed to pass the test.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on a key element, as he so often does on these occasions. He has spotted the fact that most Tory Members of Parliament--even some of my younger colleagues--have not had the benefit of the national curriculum, or, indeed, teaching relevant to the application of the tests. We shall shortly see a new, thrusting generation of young Tory Members who will have received the benefit of the curriculum. I am confident that, at that point, they will be able to shine in the tests. The hon. Gentleman will answer for his colleagues as to how well they would do, but that is another matter.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): Is not the important thing not to make claims for testing beyond what it is meant to achieve? Attacks made on testing are often on the basis--for example, as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) recently said from a sedentary position--that they are not a test of intelligence. No, tests are not. They are a short, summative assessment for testing a level of achievement at a particular moment in time. They do not exclude continuing diagnosis of pupils' ability and learning, which is a continuing part of teaching at any time.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I could not have put it better myself. In fairness to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I think that he said, standing as well as sitting--not an unusual occurrence- -that the tests were to do with intelligence. They are nothing of the kind. The tests and assessments are designed to measure the progress that pupils make in education, and therefore provide the opportunity to see where they need more support, where the teaching can be concentrated.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Before we progress, it might be helpful to the House and others who might be listening

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if the Minister could clarify what he said. He agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) that the tests were summative. From that very Dispatch Box on several occasions, he has said that they are not summative but formative, diagnostic tests aimed at helping teachers and others improve the performance of pupils. Could we be clear? Are they summative or formative tests?

Mr. Forth: At best, they seek to perform an element of all of those, together with teacher assessment. It is important that we acknowledge the importance and the role of teacher assessment alongside formal testing, in order to cover the ground that the hon. Gentleman identified. I want also--

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Forth: I certainly will, but first, because this may help the hon. Lady, I want to remind all hon. Members present--it will not be the last time that I do so during my brief remarks this morning, for reasons that the House will understand--of some of the words of the Leader of the Opposition, who is becoming quite an authority on education. He said in the Sunday Mirror of 2 October 1994: "we certainly won't be throwing out proper testing of children, because that's a necessary part of education".

So we have it on the highest authority now that what we are doing is okay by the Leader of the Opposition.

Ms Hodge: Given the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the national curriculum and his confidence in testing, and given that he believes that they will improve the quality of Conservative Members who are returned to the House, does he propose to extend the national curriculum and testing to the private sector, where most Conservative Members spend their early years?

Mr. Forth: I do not know whether that is true or not. As it happens, it did not apply to me or indeed to my daughters, but that is a matter for all of us to decide.

The answer to the hon. Lady's question is no. It is well understood that the Government welcome a healthy independent education sector. We understand the concept of choice. If people care, having paid their taxes, to spend their after-tax income on educating their children privately, they must have that choice. They will have that choice in the knowledge that the independent sector is not covered by the arrangements that the statutory or maintained sector is. I think that that is well understood. If the hon. Lady cannot understand it, I suspect that not much that I can say will persuade her.

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak): In considering the intervention that my hon. Friend has just taken from the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), will he understand her difficulties in the matter, as the former leader of Islington borough council? The Leader of the Opposition discovered that he did not wish to send his children to schools in that borough even though he lived there, and he chose to send them to a school outside the borough.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I think that what he says is true. We might mention that subject again later in a different context, but I welcome any interventions that seek to elucidate those matters. It is probably for the hon. Lady to answer for the quality of

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education in Islington, because I think that there are some questions to be asked. When eminent public figures take choices that suggest that their local education provision is unacceptable, I hope that many people will ask a lot of questions about what is happening, in Islington and elsewhere.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): The hon. Gentleman still has not answered the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) asked about the extension of those rules to private schools. The Minister knows as well as I do that there are parents, especially in Surrey, who are sending their children to private schools who are being absolutely rooked by those schools. Therefore, it would be helpful if the Minister would say, "We shall extend those minimal provisions, which we think are the best for all children, to those specific schools." Will he give that assurance now?

Mr. Forth: No. I do not share the hon. Gentleman's rather patronising attitude to parents in Surrey or anywhere else. I assume that parents in Surrey and elsewhere are perfectly capable of making an adult, rational choice about the school they wish their children to attend and the money they are prepared to spend on that education. I do not accept that there is any difficulty in increasing quality, taxpayer-funded, in the maintained sector--in the sector provided, with some pride, by the Government, the Department for Education and the Secretary of State.

I think that it is appropriate that we have a curriculum and an independent inspectorate, and assessment and testing. However, I think that it is equally appropriate that the independent sector, in which parents pay from their own hard-earned money to educate their children in the way they choose, should remain free and able to operate in the way that the parents endorse, because it is a matter of choice.

Mr. Enright: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time, but I wish for a little more elucidation. In that case, why will he not allow parents in the public sector of education to choose the curriculum with the school individually, thus giving all parents choice instead of only a few parents?

Mr. Forth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman may catch your eye in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I wait to hear that apparently it is now Labour party policy that the national curriculum is to be on an a la carte basis, whereby parents, by some unspecified arrangement--by majority vote or whatever--can pick some or all elements from some or other curriculum in each school throughout the country.

It is an interesting idea. I do not find it immediately attractive, but I await the development of the hon. Gentleman's thinking, because I know that he has a great influence on Labour party education policy. Perhaps we are about to witness further changes in Labour party education policy this morning, of the type that has rather surprised us recently. I may return to that subject in a few minutes.

Mr. Jenkin: Is it not evident from the two interventions of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) that he is coming from a standpoint that has nothing to do with education? He obviously thinks that the Government should be responsible for all schools,

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whether or not they are in the public sector, and he also thinks that parents should have no choice--that all schools should somehow be the same and regimented. Is that not the same old Labour party, wanting to create Stalinist uniformity throughout our national institutions, instead of the choice and diversity that will lead to the innovation and creativity that we need in our education system?

Mr. Forth: I hope that my hon. Friend is not making the mistake of dismissing lightly what the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) says, because the hon. Gentleman is somewhat of a Labour party guru on education, as indeed he should be--he has a very distinguished record in education. We should all listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says, because it might give a clue as to the thinking on education matters in influential circles in the Labour party. We shall all listen carefully when, as I hope, he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later in the debate, because we might hear a great deal to interest us.

Whether or not what the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) says during the debate would meet with the approval of his leader, for example, remains to be seen, but that is something that, if I have time, we might discuss later. In fact, we might mention it now, because I notice that the next heading on my piece of paper here is "Publication of Schools' Performance Data". That is a subject about which neither we nor the public and parents have any doubt. We might hear in a moment what Opposition Members' position is, but let me make our position quite clear.

We believe that it is appropriate--indeed, essential--that the public and parents know as much as possible about what is happening in our schools. That is our starting point, and we are very sure of that. We have recently seen the third round of the comparative performance tables that we are publishing about schools performance, and they have been lapped up with great enthusiasm again by the media and by parents.

Survey after survey demonstrates that parents want to know what is happening in our schools, as parents and as taxpayers, so our position on that is absolutely clear. Whether it is shared by Opposition Members remains to be seen.

I thought that recently the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) underwent something of a conversion, and that perhaps there was a growing all-party consensus on the subject. I thought that it was remarkable that, after bitter opposition to the availability of information, perhaps the Opposition were beginning to be persuaded of its value.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) rose --

Mr. Forth: I shall give way in a moment, but I want to give the hon. Gentleman some information that he may then want to develop. As recently as March 1994, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said, on the BBC "On the Record" programme:

"We will stop publishing league tables".

That is what she said, and at the time she was the Labour party's education spokesman.

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Or let us consider what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has said. He is a figure of considerable influence in the Labour party. He said in The Observer on 4 December that we must not turn the publication of results into league tables. Obviously, he had not listened to the Leader of the Opposition, who said on "Panorama" on 3 October this year:

"I'm fully in favour of information coming on league tables"-- that was the term he used--

"but there should be more information provided."

The final piece of confusing evidence comes from an item in The Scotsman , no less, of 22 November this year--it is quite recent. In it, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), a senior and influential figure in the Labour party, commented on what the Opposition education spokesman, the hon. Member for Brightside had said.

In response to the fact that the hon. Member for Brightside appeared to support performance tables, the hon. Member for Linlithgow said that he must be out of his mind. That suggests that there is some confusion among Opposition Members about the publication of information on schools and performance tables. I think that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) is about to put us out of our misery and give us the Opposition policy.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I should like to ensure that the record is put straight. There is confusion about simplistic raw data, and the Labour party has been consistent. In the Official Report of 19 November 1991, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), then shadow Secretary of State for Education, said:

"Our position during the past month is the same one that we have taken for three years. Again and again, we have argued the need for Ministers and local authorities to concentrate on the value added by schools. If one simply relies on the raw data, and not school effectiveness data, it may show the strength of the pupils at the school, not the strength of the school."--[ Official Report , 19 November 1991; Vol. 199, c. 153.]

That has been our consistent position, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, because the heading on my next page of notes happens to be "Value Added". It is a welcome development that Opposition Members are now talking about value added. Let us think about what that is. It is not entirely clear what everyone means by the term. As with many other topics, there is confusion about the meaning of the term.

There is broad agreement that we would like to be able to assess the extent to which schools improve the performance of their pupils through their educative input and teaching efforts--there must be common ground there. The other inescapable fact is that, when seeking to measure value added in education, there must be regular testing and assessment of pupils at different stages of their education in order to provide the benchmarks. I see that the Labour party's Front-Bench team are nodding--at long last we have agreement that regular testing in schools is an essential part of education. We are making progress.

The fact that the hon. Member for Walton has endorsed the concept of value added takes us further. It suggests--I hope that he will expand on the subject when he speaks shortly--that we might be looking at some sort of testing

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assessment for five-year-olds on their entry to school. If not, it would be difficult to see how we could measure value added in primary schools.

The hon. Member for Walton might say that he is thinking about some sort of assessment of pupils before the age of five, which might be an interesting thought. I can predict with confidence that he will be telling us that testing and assessment at regular stages throughout education is an essential part of measuring value added. Beyond that, none of us can go with confidence.

If the hon. Gentleman has read, as I am sure he has, the recent School Curriculum and Assessment Authority report on value added, he will know that it is a scholarly study of the difficulties and complexities, and the need for reliable data over a period of years before one can, with confidence, measure and publish value added information. I think and hope that that is common ground between us. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked SCAA to look further into the subject, which will be taken forward. We shall consult on the basis of next year's publication of results and decide which information can sensibly and reliably be published. I think that we have broad agreement on the subject, and I welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Kilfoyle: What sort of timetable does the Minister foresee for the introduction of value added data?

Mr. Forth: Of necessity, it will probably have to be a longish timetable, because the development of reliable figures on value added depends on the availability of reliable testing and assessment figures over a period. For reasons that the hon. Gentleman will well understand, we do not yet have them. I hope that we shall start to have them next year, when key stage 2 comes on stream. I hope that, from that year on, it will be possible to look at and publish value added figures. It is not something that we can expect to happen quickly.

The possibility of a year-on-year index, a rolling three-year index, has been considered and favoured in some quarters. We shall be consulting on that in the context of next year's performance figures generally, so it may be possible to introduce such a policy. I remain to be convinced of that option, but on the face of it, it is available as an option. I urge some caution. My answer to the hon. Gentleman's fair question is that I believe that it will be some time yet before we can contemplate the publication of comprehensive and reliable value added data. That is an objective that we all share and to which we are all working.

I said that we all share that objective, but I have in my hand a copy of The Teacher , a publication of the National Union of Teachers--its usual spokesmen do not appear to be present this morning; perhaps they thought that I would quote from this document. I shall quote from it, and the hon. Member for Walton may wish to comment. It states:

"The union is opposed to league tables whether they are Labour league tables or Conservative league tables. They are part of a market concept of education . . . Mr. Blunkett claims that his league tables will be better than Mrs. Shephard's because they will be so-called `value added' league tables."

This is the publication of the NUT, with which certain Opposition Members have a close affinity. It continues:

"The case for the value added approach has yet to be proved. There are enormous problems of defining all the factors affecting schools which would have to be taken into account . . . If Mr.

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Blunkett is really serious about having the value added test, he will need to do more testing than the Tories. You can't measure the `value added' at seven without knowing the base from which you started. Therefore you would have to test children when they start school at four."

That is a lengthy quote from the NUT, but it informs the debate. I think that Opposition Members may want to take the opportunity this morning to comment at some length on what the NUT said about what the Labour party's education spokesman said on value added. But that is a matter for Opposition Members--I do not regard it as my duty to go into the private grief of the relationship between the Labour party and the NUT.

Mr. Don Foster: I should remind the Minister that, as well as being an adviser to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, I am also an adviser to the NUT, with which, as the Minister well knows, I have had violent disagreements on a number of occasions. Like the Minister, I should be interested to hear the comments from the Labour party's Front-Bench team.

For the sake of the record, will the Minister make it clear that the Government's Front-Bench team and his Department are genuinely interested in adding value added information to league tables and to information provided to parents and others? He will remember that, about a year ago, his right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), the former Secretary of State for Education, accused me of wanting to obfuscate the facts by talking about value added.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman--I sometimes lose count of the number of education hats he wears. He has helped us with what he has said.

The position is perfectly clear. It may be that, at the time of which he speaks, we were having a debate about sociological factors and massaging figures. I am glad to say that I think that that debate has been left behind--it was nonsense then, and it is nonsense now. I have no difficulty in confirming that the Secretary of State has said that she wants to take the matter forward.

When we can identify ways of properly measuring value added on the basis of reliable data, we shall want to provide that information. We have no difficulty with that. The SCAA report suggests caution, and patience would be sensible.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I want to set the record straight on the relationship between Labour Front-Bench spokesmen and the National Union of Teachers. The NUT is not affiliated to the Labour party, and pays nothing into Labour party funds. Would the Minister say the same, for instance, about the Tory placemen on the Funding Agency for Schools who contribute to the Conservative party through their various companies? Is the Minister beholden to them?

Mr. Forth: If the hon. Gentleman discusses these points with members of the FAS--it is a very open body--he may find that they do not believe that the Government are in their pockets, or vice versa. Quite rightly, a vigorous debate goes on between the Government and the funding agency, about the future shape of the grant-maintained sector of funding and various other matters. I have no difficulty with that at all.

Mr. Jenkin: What worries me about added value tables for schools is the fact that schools in more difficult areas

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may be given an excuse for poor performance. We should remember that one of the prime aims of education is to achieve good results across the board and to give good opportunities to all children, wherever they live and wherever their schools are.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is right; he illustrates some of the difficulties. If a school is performing extraordinarily well, on some methods of measuring added value it can be difficult for it to demonstrate an improvement--if it already achieves a 100 per cent. pass rate, for example. By the same token, a school starting from a low base line can readily show a rapid rate of progress simply because it started from such a poor position. That just goes to show some of the problems in this area.

Mr. Enright: I have considerable sympathy with what the Minister is saying. Winchester, which is highly selective and weeds out the thickies at an early stage, should perform extraordinarily well; whereas Eton, which will take any old thickie, should be judged by another standard altogether. The value added in each case should be put together and compared.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman appears to be revealing another Labour party secret--the fact that it has a thickness index. I shall leave him to make the running on that one. As ever, he offers an interesting insight into Labour party thinking on these matters.

Ms Hodge: It appeared to me during the most recent exchange that the Minister does not quite understand what value added is about. It is the value added to the educational attainment of each child. Merely looking at the outcome of a school does not show how that school has added to what a child can achieve. The intervention by the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), and the Minister's reply to it, both showed a misunderstanding of the value added concept.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Lady, too, shows the difficulties which I have already readily accepted. I have said over and over again that we all want to find a valid method of measuring the value added by education to pupils' attainments: that is common ground. The difficulty arises with finding that method, finding the relevant data and determining how to measure and report them. I think that there is more common ground here than the hon. Lady is prepared to acknowledge, and that heartens me. If nothing else emerges from this morning's debate, that alone will have been a considerable achievement.

I shall pass over one or two elements of the list that I gave at the beginning, for which I apologise, but I know that colleagues want to make their speeches. I do feel, however, that I should say something about parental involvement. That will lead me quickly on to discussing grant maintained schools.

There is, I hope, a growing consensus--we wait to hear what Opposition Members have to say--on the idea that parental involvement is crucial to education. We have provided a number of ways of enhancing it: reporting on children's progress at least once a year; summary reports on schools by independent inspectors; performance tables; comprehensive school prospectuses; annual reports by schools' governors; annual general meetings; parent governors serving on school boards. All these are

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designed to increase parents' participation in schools and to give them a greater sense of ownership in what schools do. There is little disagreement about that.

Parental involvement can take many different forms--direct involvement as governors, attending AGMs, and so on. Another important recent element of parental involvement has been parents' ability to participate in ballots on whether a school should become grant maintained. We have developed that policy over a number of years, and it has been extremely successful. More than 1,000 schools have chosen to become grant-maintained--in spite of some vicious opposition from local education authorities. Still, these schools have decided to go for GM status, and we have enabled them to do that.

There appears to be some confusion about what Opposition Members really think about grant maintained schools. In the course of the "On the Record" BBC programme on 6 March 1994, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), then the Labour party's education spokesman, stated:

"you can't keep Grant-Maintained schools".

Perhaps we may characterise that--if this is not too ungallant of me--as the authentic voice of old Labour, bitterly opposed, as ever, to parental choice. But a Mr. Neil Fletcher said on the same programme:

"It would be very wrong for an incoming Labour government to . . . return those schools, against their will, to the LEA. The Labour Party cannot afford to be against popular schools".

I found that an informative insight into Labour party thinking. These newspaper articles can be a mine of information. In The Observer of 4 December 1994, the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook said:

"It would be intolerable were the Labour party to encourage the middle classes to elbow their way into the most popular schools". I cannot imagine who the right hon. Gentleman had in mind, but there is clearly some confusion on the part of the Opposition as to what is going on.

Are grant-maintained schools a matter of parental choice, given that the schools opt for that status and then parents elect to send their children to them? Do Opposition Members approve of personal choice, or parental choice? I hope that this debate will provide an opportunity for Opposition Members to tell us in some detail--possibly with some passion--what they think about GM schools, parental choice and the freedom of parents to exercise that choice. I suspect that the hon. Member for Walton is itching to get up and tell us right now.

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