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Mr. Kilfoyle: We are in favour of choice, but that choice has to be informed. Would the Minister care to tell us why, when parents at the West Monmouth school had clearly balloted against GM status, the Government then insisted that they hold another ballot?

Mr. Forth: Indeed we did. When local education authorities and/or the Labour party have provided parents with appallingly distorted information and subjected them to intolerable pressure, there is certainly a mechanism for ordering a re-run of a ballot, and it has been used from time to time.

As for ill-informed choice, I wonder what sort of information parents would have if they were considering local schools that were provided by a Labour LEA, and decided that all the schools were obviously unacceptable

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and their choice was to send the child to another school some distance away? Presumably such parents would have had sufficient information, and I would not be surprised if they had used our performance tables on schools in the locality before deciding to send the child some distance.

It is right for us to provide information for parents and to give them freedom of choice, and we applaud the right of parents to make that choice. I hope that the Opposition will tell us that they also support those freedoms, the provision of such information and the right of parents to decide where to send their children.

I apologise for speaking for such a long time. I wanted to cover some other areas, but I will not do so.

Mr. Don Foster: Before the Minister leaves the issue of grant- maintained schools, will he give the current prediction of his Department for the number of pupils in grant-maintained schools by December 1995? I hope that the Minister will not say, as he has on other occasions, that his Department does not make predictions about such matters, because it has regularly done so in various memoranda and in evidence to Select Committees. That evidence demonstrates that, so far, the Department's predictions have been out by 40 per cent.

Mr. Forth: No, I cannot make such predictions, because the hon. Gentleman has kindly alluded to the fact that I have said many times that the number of pupils in grant-maintained schools at any one time is determined by parental ballots. We have no control over that process, which happens naturally. Therefore, the number of pupils and the number of schools are determined by ballots.

Mr. Foster: The Minister cannot get away with it as lightly as that. His Department makes predictions which, of course, have often been dramatically wrong. There were predictions in the press release relating to the Budget. I ask the Minister again to place on record his Department's prediction about the number of pupils in grant-maintained schools over the next two or three years.

Mr. Forth: What is contained in the press release is presumably what the Department wants to say about the matter. I shall not repeat what is in the press release, because that is not my function in this debate. As the hon. Gentleman has kindly conceded, for a long time I have taken a much more relaxed attitude to these matters. It would be quite wrong of me to vary my position now just because the hon. Gentleman has read a press release.

I shall now turn to the issue of failing schools. In a debate about standards and quality in education, we must consider that important matter. In a sense, I suppose that we have arrived at this rather late, but it is right that we have finally reached it. For too long, too many schools have failed their pupils and have been allowed to continue year after year and generation after generation to provide unacceptable education.

Generations of young people have left our schools hopelessly equipped to meet the demands of the modern age.That is quite intolerable, and that is why we took the power in the Education Act 1993 to allow Ofsted, the independent inspectorate, to identify schools that were failing their pupils and to invoke a mechanism requiring the schools and the LEA, where appropriate, or the governors in the case of a grant-maintained school, to produce plans to bring the school up to acceptable standards.

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The fallback mechanism was that an education association could be created to manage the school and ultimately to decide whether the school was satisfactory or had to be closed. We have already started that process, and a number of schools have been identified by Ofsted. I am happy to report that, so far, the response by the overwhelming majority has been positive. They have been remarkable in examining what they were doing and considering plans for improvement. The early signs are that the bulk of those schools, often with the support of their local education authorities, will improve their performance to an acceptable extent.

That sends out an important message to education and to everyone involved in it, which is that failing schools, which let their pupils down year after year and generation after generation, are unacceptable. As I say, there is now a mechanism to deal with them, and it has widespread support throughout education. The willingness of schools, governors and LEAs to respond to that mechanism has demonstrated that it will bring in a new era of hope for pupils who for too long have all too often been badly let down.

The issue of special educational needs is very close to my heart. I have had the privilege of dealing with it since I came to the Department two and a half years ago, and I can claim, I hope with humility, that, over the past two years, we have taken important action in this area and have carried with us most of the people involved.

Few areas of education are as important as dealing effectively with pupils who have special needs. A great breakthrough was made in 1981 with the seminal report, but by about 1992 we had identified weaknesses, inconsistencies, gaps and problems. Worst of all, many pupils were required to wait an intolerable length of time to have their education dealt with properly by schools and LEAs.

The combination of the Education Act 1993, the code of practice that underpins it and the special educational needs tribunal goes a long way towards dealing with those difficulties. My confident hope is that we shall be able to deliver quality provision of education to pupils with special needs in all schools.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): In some Labour-controlled authorities, such as Ealing, the law is being seriously broken. Grant- maintained schools are getting proportionally much less support on special educational needs than authority schools. Children are not being statemented when they should be, and those who are statemented are not getting the support that is set out for them in the statements. The law is being blatantly flouted by Ealing Labour council. What do the Government intend to do about such serious breaches of the law?

Mr. Forth: If my hon. Friend will provide me with evidence, I will have it looked into urgently. What he says is happening is unacceptable, and we shall want to act promptly and effectively to deal with the difficulties.

Of course, the new regime has been in force for only about three months. The full implementation of the code of practice in particular and the tribunal, which will hear its first cases next month, will take some time. The combination of what we are doing about special needs, school policies, the code of practice and so on will go a

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long way to deal with the problems that my hon. Friend may have in mind. I ask him again to let me have evidence of what he has alleged, because I want it to be looked at.

I hope that what I have said will convince hon. Members and those outside that the Government are serious about standards and quality in education. We want to make sure that every child is guaranteed, as far as it is possible to give that guarantee, access to a proper breadth and quality of education. We are determined that all pupils, regardless of location, background or abilities will be fitted as best possible for the ever- increasing demands of the world beyond education. That is the Government's responsibility, and we are determined fully to discharge it.

10.29 am

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): To a certain extent, there is increasing agreement on education between the Government and the Opposition, but only because the Government have made so many U-turns--in particular the appointment of a new Secretary of State for Education.

I welcome the opportunity to debate standards in the education system. Perhaps I should say "our" education system, as we are talking about the state system--the system that I and five of my children went through, and a system about which I feel passionately. I do not know whether one can feel the same passion for a system that one does not use very often, but I declare a vested interest for myself, the Labour party and certainly for the good burghers of Walton, because we do not have the option of buying into the private sector, and nor do we want to; we pay our taxes and expect the Government to provide a decent, high standard of education for all our children.

I want to talk about the real standards in schools, not the spurious measures that the Conservative party often try to pass off as a way of proving educational advances. It was telling that there was not a single word in the Gracious Speech about education. It shows how little Conservatives care about it. For me, education is the principal route for individual advancement and for national progress. Yet, for the past 15 years under this Government, the education system and the opportunities for those who depend on state provision for the education of their children-- the vast majority of the British people--have shrivelled. The Minister gave us a whole list of sectors. I understand that, because of the pressures of time, he had to omit some of them, but it is interesting to note some that he omitted.

One subject about which he may have had a Pauline conversion was nursery provision. If we are serious about improving the standards in education, we need to start at the very beginning with nursery provision. As we all know, 50 per cent. of education development takes place in the first five years of a child's life. The research from the National Commission for Education, the Royal Society of Arts and the National Foundation for Educational and Research in England and Wales provides conclusive evidence of the value of such education. I know that the Minister is well aware of that. More importantly for me, in the context of recent debates, is the recent American research, which evidences the long-term social benefits of nursery education. These days, even our benighted Prime Minister seems to see the advantages of nursery education. That is until he saw the

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costs, because, by all accounts, to fulfil the pledges that he and the Secretary of State for Education made would cost about £300 million, but there was no extra money in the recent Budget. It could be argued that the Secretary of State has signally failed to persuade the Chancellor that support for nursery education is worth financing, but, of course, he has problems of his own right now.

I was also taken by the comments of Sheila Lawlor, a well-known advocate of Conservative policies, who last night again made a fool of herself, this time on the regulation of outdoor education centres, and was yesterday in The Guardian . It seems that she challenges the consensus view that nursery education has proven social and educational benefits. I wonder whether, as in the past, she speaks for the new thinking in the Conservative party. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that, once again, she is out of step with its thinking.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth): The hon. Gentleman raises two points to which I shall refer, the first of which is spending. Can he really be unaware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has secured an extra £427 million for education spending this year? Secondly, Sheila Lawlor produces papers, which may or may not interest Conservative Members, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that she certainly does not speak for the parliamentary party.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Let me nail the myth about the extra money for education and what did and did not come out of the Budget, including the £400 million that was taken away from the local education authorities. As to the business about Sheila Lawlor, she always seems to be at the forefront, and very often what she says today, the Conservative party and the Government take up tomorrow. I wonder whether it will be another U-turn --one of many that the new Secretary of State has made already.

Mr. Forth: While I confirm, which I happily do, that it is the Government's policy to develop and work towards a policy of education provision for all four-year-olds, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman--I detect that he might be leaving the subject--will confirm precisely the Labour party's commitment to pre-five provision.

Mr. Kilfoyle: It is a matter of record that the Labour party goes along with precisely what was pointed out in our White Paper, "Opening Doors on a Learning Society"--that appropriate nursery education provision will be made available to all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it. It would obviously have to be costed and paid for. [Interruption.] I shall touch on that later, if and when the Government decide to implement their own pledges and look at the cost of the assisted places scheme. Money within the current budget is not necessarily unavailable for such a purpose. Labour's key objective will be to ensure that all three and four-year-olds have quality nursery education. That will happen in due course, but nevertheless it is a commitment. It will be one of the very first things that the next Labour Government--which is not too far off--will put into practice.

I shall deal now with cuts in education spending. It is a fact that £100 million was cut from the budget for the Department for Education and Ofsted. Ofsted faces a cut of £13 million in planned expenditure, despite concerns about the need for more inspections. I understand that

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inspections have now been handed over to Her Majesty's inspectorate because of Ofsted's failure to meet the targets. Instead of a budget of £111 million, it must make do with only £98 million. I note that, in some of the London boroughs, fewer than half of the planned inspections were made.

For a Government who espouse standards as their byword for their education policy, I do not understand how, without making the appropriate inspections of schools, they can even begin to assess the standards. It is quite disgraceful that Ofsted has been unable to meet its targets. It failed only because of Tory ideology. It is not working. Regular inspection of primary schools in particular is crucial if we are to raise standards and improve literacy and numeracy.

I return to the cuts in the local education authority budget--£400 million. For most authorities, that means a cut in real terms of 2 per cent. I think that the Minister has his brief from the civil servants, and he may like to answer. He is obviously anticipating that we shall find many more faults in his claims. Nevertheless, those cuts will affect every pupil in every school across the country--that is, unless one is in the private schools system--and many grant-maintained schools. I hasten to mention to Conservative Members that I shall not avoid the question of grant- maintained schools. I shall come back to it as the climax to my contribution. We now have a large and very damaging cut in what will be available to schools next year.

On standards, another issue is that of class size. I have read about, and, certainly in recent months, heard of, many examples around the world of large class sizes not seeming to affect the standards in those schools. I have to say that, when I was teaching, if I had a class--which I did at secondary level--of more than 40, it was a damn sight harder to impart knowledge in my limited way to those pupils than it would have been if I had had a class of perhaps 20.

One of the great advantages that the private schools seem to have is a low pupil-teacher ratio compared to schools in the public sector. People do vote with their feet on these issues, but class size is an issue that the Government have failed to address, but which they should address because of the pressures that it puts not only on teachers but, most importantly, on the individual pupils in the classroom. The problem affects not only schools, but the higher education sector.

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley): The hon. Gentleman referred to class sizes and the pupil-teacher ratio. Does he accept that since 1979, the ratio has improved from 19:1 to 18:1?

Mr. Kilfoyle: No, quite the reverse has happened. The figures that I have show that the pupil-teacher ratio in January 1993 was 17.8:1 and in January 1994 it was 18.1:1. That is an increase, not a decrease.

Class sizes are important to the quality of education. A recent publication by Professor Neville Bennett of Exeter university, called "Class size in Primary Schools: Perceptions of Headteachers, Chairs of Governors and Parents" reflects the views of people at the sharp end of education. It is believed to be the first time that the independent views of those directly concerned at school level have been sought. That in itself is something of a scandal.

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Not surprisingly, the report states that the great majority of teachers, parents and chairs of governing bodies say that class sizes are too large and that class size is a very, if not the most, important educational issue. The research is significant because those conducting it sought the opinions of the four key partners directly involved in children's education. Too often, hon. Members want to be prescriptive about what is happening at the sharp end of education.

Mr. Forth: People's opinions are important, but they are not always definitive. What evidence does the hon. Gentleman have that there is any causal connection between class size and educational achievement or outcome?

Mr. Kilfoyle: Most of my evidence is anecdotal. I have spoken to both teachers and parents. By and large, it is accepted by the consumers of education, especially parents, that smaller classes are more effective. Indeed, that is often reflected in results. Schools with low pupil-teacher ratios have better results, especially in examinations. In the Minister's terms, they are more successful academically.

Mr. Forth: It is also accepted by most people that a return to capital punishment would deter criminals. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that on the same basis?

Mr. Kilfoyle: No, I do not. The Minister makes a specious argument.

Professor Bennett's research shows that almost one in three teachers now teach classes with 31 or more children. The position is worse for children aged seven to 11--years three to six--where almost 40 per cent. of teachers have those large classes. The Department's own figures tell the story, although they omit the worse cases. They show that the pupil-teacher ratio in maintained nursery, primary and secondary schools is 18.1:1. It has actually risen over the past 12 months. Head teachers and chairs of governing bodies are frustrated by external constraints in their attempts to prevent class sizes increasing--for example, by the operation of the formulae for local management of schools and the appeals system covering places in schools.

Mr. Jenkin: What should the pupil-teacher ratio be?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I have no idea, to be quite frank, but I do know that the figure should be decreased. I say that from my experience both as a teacher and as a parent. I am sure that research can determine the appropriate figures. Problems arise when the Government feed figures, rather than quality, into schools. The Government want numbers, not quality.

Other factors affect standards in our schools. It is all very well to talk about academic outturns, to use the jargon, but what about the actual buildings in which pupils are being taught and where they are supposed to learn? Six years ago, the Audit Commission estimated the cost of clearing the backlog of repairs and maintenance to schools at £2 billion. Recent research by local authority associations shows the cost could now be double that.

Is the Minister aware of the scale of the problem, which affects every authority? In a recent report, one London head teacher asked: "What use is a parents charter when you are allowing pupils to work in such dreadful conditions?"

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It is only a matter of time before there is a serious accident in one of those schools. Every hon. Member must have visited schools that pose real dangers to both children and staff because of the poor state of the fabric of the buildings.

The state of school buildings is nothing less than a crisis, but the Government are allowing local education authorities only 23 per cent. for that in their capital borrowing bids for the coming year. The answer seems simple to me. Why cannot local authorities borrow more to finance the appropriate buildings? Why not allow LEAs more discretion to use receipts from the sale of land and property? I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point later.

It is time that there was an end to the "Dad's Army" of recruits who patch and mend the fabric of schools buildings, many of which are more than 100 years old. Some of the buildings are demountables, erected on a temporary basis more than 30 years ago--yet children are still being taught in them. At one school in Birmingham temporary buildings erected 60 years ago are still being used. It is a national disgrace.

Mr. Enright: My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Is he aware that the problem is compounded in mining areas because of the amount of subsidence, for which it is now impossible to get reparation from British Coal?

Mr. Kilfoyle: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, different circumstances affect schools in different parts of the country. The picture is one of unremitting gloom.

The Minister commented on curriculum changes. We have long supported the need for a national curriculum and we welcomed its introduction. However, we part company with the Government on the prescriptive national syllabus that they have been enforcing. We believe that, through the national curriculum, all children must be equipped with the core skills which are essential to their later learning and which provide a broad and balanced education for each child.

However, we cannot avoid the fact that since the former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), introduced the national curriculum in 1988, it has cost the taxpayer almost £750 million. That money has been wasted on tinkering with the contents. It has been spent not on improving facilities and standards in the classroom but on funding the bureaucracy which the Government have created to administer the changes, and which they are constantly having to adjust. The last round of changes cost £6 million for the publication and distribution of a new curriculum. Some £2 million was spent on consultants fees--which seem to arise in almost every Government operation. The interim and final Dearing reports cost £755,000, while the work by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority on slimming down the curriculum cost £582,000. All that tinkering has an effect on staff and pupils in schools. Time that should have been spent on boosting achievement has been wasted on adapting to the whims of whichever Secretary of State was in office. We are talking not about one, not about two, but about five different Secretaries of State. It is a national scandal.

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I want to raise a point about which I feel very, very strongly. It occurred to me only this morning. The emphasis on English that was in the new curriculum is being undermined by the amount of section 11 money being diverted into the single regeneration budget. The very people who most need help--those with English as a second language-- are being penalised because section 11 money is being taken away. I hope that the Minister will make representations to his Government to redress that balance.

Neither the Government nor my party can measure any improvement in standards because the Government, according to their own record, got it wrong from the start. I am glad that the Secretary of State has said that there will be a period of stability, during which time the Government will boost standards and develop achievement levels free from bureaucratic worries. If the Secretary of State repudiates more unnecessary and unwanted radical change, we will welcome that. One of the more contentious issues to which Conservative Members will want to direct their attention is league tables and examination results. We will not be lectured by them on the publication of data, because we differ most over their quantity and quality. We shall ensure that every parent will have the right, under a comprehensive freedom of information Act, to obtain details of the performance of local schools and LEAs. We shall publish information on a range of issues, including uniform, homework, discipline, internal pastoral arrangements, sports and library facilities, and pupil achievement.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): One questions the quality of the hon. Gentleman's proposal for a system of league tables that will explain the value added. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the suggestion by another Labour Front-Bench spokesman that, to make league tables more socially relevant, they ought to be grouped according to post code? Given that the Peabody estate and Belgrave square are both in SW1, is not that proposal a load of nonsense?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am not a postman, but I understand that each post code encompasses 1,800 properties. I may point out that SW1 is not a post code but that SW1A 0AA is a post code. I accept the hon. Gentleman's constructive criticism that a post code can be only a rough guide to the economic status of people living in a particular area. The truth is that there are not many highly mixed areas. Our complaint with the Government's crude league tables is that they reveal only part of the picture. We would develop and publish performance tables showing how much added value a school has achieved. We shall highlight schools that show real improvement year on year. We are not against high standards or improvement, but we are against mediocrity. The children who suffer most from mediocrity are those attending schools in areas such as that which I represent, whose only life chances will come from the education that a Labour Government will make available to them.

Mr. Don Foster: I agree with the need to provide a wide range of information, but I understood the hon.

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Gentleman to say that Labour would publish league tables based on crude test or examination results. In the past, Labour said that it would not do that.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I said that we would publish information in each of several different areas. That has been party policy and will continue to be so.

We shall do more than the Government, through help to schools that fall behind, to prevent them from becoming sink schools. Labour will act to lever up standards rather than perpetuate the fiction that the market will cater for the needs of children whose schools may be perceived in Government terms to be failing. An unemployed parent living in Liverpool cannot suddenly uproot and move to Leatherhead to ensure for his or her children the education that Conservative Members might think appropriate. We shall intervene to help schools. I am sure that Conservative Members will raise the issue of grant-maintained schools. The head teacher of one well-known GMS--the Oratory school in west London--made a strong statement on intervention. Many people in education recognise the importance of intervention, but sadly they do not include the Government.

Mr. Jenkin: The Oratory school will be familiar to the Leader of the Opposition. As to league tables, I understood the hon. Gentleman to imply that a future Labour Government would not publish test and examination results in their current form. Will we return to the days when such information was suppressed?

Mr. Kilfoyle: Quite the contrary. The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening. I said that, under our proposed freedom of information Act, we shall make much more information available. Our criticism is that the data currently provided are one-dimensional and do not give the information to which parents are entitled. As to school standards, it is often a case of do as I say, not as I do. One disturbing feature is the power and influence held by education quangos. Research by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) showed that 55 per cent. of the money spent on schools and colleges is channelled through unaccountable quangos, which means that taxpayers can no longer use their votes in local elections directly to influence school spending. A powerful new quango, the Funding Agency for Schools, has been established.

The Minister referred to the National Union of Teachers, and I presume that he holds the same views about other trade unions--which I would defend as having the right to represent their members. Our priority is to represent the interests of school children. The FAS controls the funds and monitors the performance of schools that opt for grant-maintained status. Its chairman, Sir Christopher Benson, is chairman of the Sun Alliance group, which has given £280, 000 to the Tory party in the past six years; a director of the MEPC property group, which gave £25,000 to the Conservative party in the 1992 general election; and chairman of the Costain group, which also donates to Tory funds. Other members of that supposedly impartial body are Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixons, which gave £25,000 to the Conservatives at the last election; Edward Lister, Conservative leader of Wandsworth council; and Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of south-east Conservatives.

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I shall not delve into the relationship between the GMS insurance company run by Sir Robert and Sun Alliance, because I am sure that Conservative Members are well acquainted with it. The Minister spoke about teaching unions, which perform the proper role of defending the working conditions of their members, and abused Labour for supposed links with such organisations. The public have a right to know the Government's relationship with so-called independent agencies. The House would not expect me to say other than that the Government have gone wrong principally by being motivated by ideological experiments. The variety of U -turns that the Secretary of State has already made suggest that the right hon. Lady, unlike some of her predecessors, acknowledges that error, and that pre-eminent in her thinking, as with that of any right-minded person, is improving educational standards.

Hungry children do not make ideal pupils. When the Minister considers improving standards in schools, is he aware that one in nine children go to school without breakfast? Is he aware that one in six children go home at night and do not have a hot meal? Between 1979 and 1991-92, the amount of money spent on the provision of school meals has been cut by 58 per cent. That is a national disgrace. Not only has there been an expenditure cut, but many authorities provide only the most minimal school dinner service. It is equally disgraceful that there have been no agreed national nutritional standards since 1990. I received free school dinners all of my school life. In fact, I enjoyed them so much that during the holidays I would go to the local dinner centre where, although it was a discretionary service, hot meals were laid on for many children. We cannot expect much at school from tired and hungry children. I also worry about the effect on educational standards of the huge increase in the number of experienced teachers who are leaving the profession on health grounds. In 1984-85, 2,449 teachers resigned on health grounds and last year the figure was 5,535. I am sure that the Minister appreciates that teaching is become increasingly stressful. Those who suffer most are the teachers we can ill afford to lose--those with the most chalk-face experience.

I do not think that it is a coincidence that the huge increase in teacher resignations occurred at the same time as the many precipitate changes forced through by successive Secretaries of State. A snapshot survey was taken recently among Catholic head teachers in the Birmingham archdiocese. Overwhelmingly, stress is the biggest problem they face. When the matter was pursued further--I see the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) nodding in agreement--it was discovered that the stress resulted from--

Mr. Pawsey: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should make it clear that I was actually nodding in agreement with the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) who is sitting behind the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Enright: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. There will be no bogus points of order this morning.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Most head teachers ascribed their increased stress to the many unwanted changes that had been forced through in their schools, particularly since the Education Reform Act 1988 came into effect.

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The Government have been complacent about many educational factors. They have certainly been complacent about the explosion in the number of student expulsions and suspensions in schools. Recent Ofsted figures show that the number has doubled in the past two years. The Minister should speak to his colleagues about it, because I certainly speak to mine. I try to visit many schools, and head teachers and governors say that they face increasing numbers of student expulsions and suspensions. Last week, I met a group of head teachers from Nottinghamshire who said that the biggest problem on the horizon for them was the increase in the number of pupils that they were having to expel and suspend because of behavioural difficulties. Another important issue is post-16 education.

Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley): Not mentioned by the Minister.

Mr. Kilfoyle: As my hon. Friend says, the Minister did not mention it in his contribution--perhaps he ran out of time. Some 750,000 young people are outside education, training and work. That is a better measure of the Government's failure than the fallacious rhetoric of Ministers. We can add to that the scandal of student poverty: a whole generation of young people are being conditioned by Government policy to accept debt as a way of life.

The loan scheme is in chaos. It provides more for the quangocrats who run it than it provides for students. It is a conscious step along the road of denying working-class children access to higher education. They are squeezed at the start of the educational chain--at the nursery level-- and they are now being squeezed towards the end of it.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Will he reassure the House that the Labour party will not introduce loans for student fees when we come to office?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am sure that that is the case, but the question of future funding for higher and further education is a matter for our national policy commission. We shall not fall into the trap of providing ammunition for a thoroughly discredited Government to abuse during an election campaign.

Mr. Hendry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point. He will be aware that the Labour party's Commission on Social Justice advised that there should be a charge for fees for people entering higher education. Is he specifically rejecting that recommendation or is he leaving his options open?

Mr. Kilfoyle: That is a recommendation. We have well-established machinery for considering what party policy, and eventually what our manifesto, will be.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) said, the discretionary grants system has become a lottery with very few prizes. The accident of where one lives determines what, if any, discretionary awards one will receive. The Department's own figures show, for example, that 10 London local authorities make no discretionary awards to 16 to 18-year-old students and 10 local authorities make no discretionary awards to students aged 19 and above.

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Is it any wonder that young people are so alienated from our political system? It does not seem to be doing them any favours. Perhaps the Government hope that fragmentation of higher and further education will hide the problem, but I assure them that it is not hidden from us. We have to bear in mind the long-term effects of that alienation on not only the 750,000 people who form the education and training underclass, but the 2.5 million first-time voters who chose not to exercise their franchise at the last election. That statistic should be worrying for any political party.

I know that Conservative Members are tired of listening to me drone on about matters in which they have no interest because they can make little or no political capital from them, so I shall now move to the vexed question of grant-maintained status.

I take a very personal view about it, because I have been involved in two opt-out campaigns. I hark back to the Minister's earlier comments about the kind of information that local authorities release. In the first campaign, I had a dickens of a job obtaining even a list of parents--that was problem No. 1. Problem No. 2 was that, because of the head teacher's predisposition towards GM status, children were taking home propaganda to which we had virtually no access.

Ultimately, the school decided to go for grant-maintained status. The parents were sold on it principally because the Government offered the bribe that the school would jump the queue for single-site status.

The second example is instructive. It involves a school that, by the Government's own standards, is successful in terms of raw data scores. It was a simple matter to persuade parents that they had a winning school. Why should the school have changed its status, despite the best efforts of the governors and one or two people in the school, who wanted to go for grant- maintained status?

Mr. Pawsey: Has the hon. Gentleman read the piece in The Times Educational Supplement on 7 October 1994? The TES is not known to be a particular Government supporter, but it made it clear that the overwhelming majority of head teachers applied for grant-maintained status, not because of extra funding or, to use the hon. Gentleman's word, bribes, but because of the greater independence that grant-maintained schools enjoy. That is what draws them in. That is the principal benefit.

Mr. Enright: That is not true.

Mr. Pawsey: Of course it is true.

Mr. Kilfoyle: If that were the case, why were the Government so keen to offer such schools extra funding? If it was not about extra finance for capital investment, why make the offer in the first place?

Mr. Pawsey: The hon. Gentleman invites me to speak again. I rest my case on what I have just said. Schools choose to become grant-maintained because they like the independence. It is not the money but the independence. Parents like the fact that schools can cut the apron strings that secure them to local education authorities. That is why parents vote for GM status.

Mr. Kilfoyle: That obviously explains why West Monmouth school and schools like the one in Kirklees, despite the best efforts of the Government, have chosen

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not to opt out. Despite pressure on schools to consider ballots every year, only just over 4 per cent. of them have taken that path. That shows how amazingly popular it is.

I should like to nail a few myths about the Labour party's view on grant- maintained schools. First, it is said that we encourage people not to send their children to GM schools. That has never been, and will never be, the Labour party's policy. We believe in parental choice. The idiocy of the suggestion that we would go down a different line is evidenced by the fact that people could live in a region or in a local authority area where there is no alternative to a GM school. What is a parent living in that region supposed to do? The Labour party's view has been that we object to the way in which grant-maintained schools have been given preferential funding, to the way in which they are no longer under any form of local accountability, and to the way in which have been placed under the direct control of the Secretary of State for Education.

Mr. Booth: If the Labour party is seriously telling the House that it is in favour of choice, why does it want to get rid of assisted places, city technology colleges and a range of other choices that the Conservative party has introduced? Why did the Labour party abolish grammar schools in the first place?

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