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Conservative Members who have said that there is a great deal of confusion in Labour party policy on a number of issues--

Mr. Hendry: The hon. Gentleman expresses much of what we think when he talks about this confusion. He did, however, tell the Times Educational Supplement that it was

"difficult to disagree with a word she"--

referring to the former Labour education spokesman--


When the interviewer told the hon. Gentleman that it was difficult to see daylight between their two parties' policies, the hon. Gentleman agreed: "Yes--embarrassing, isn't it?" How has he come to realise that Labour's policies are confusing--or is he trying to tell us that the policies of his party are equally confusing?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman's intervention allows me to put on the record, a year after I put it on record, the last time that a Conservative Member mentioned that quote, how it came about. The hon. Gentleman takes it out of context. I was agreeing with the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who had spoken about the importance of nursery education. The hon. Member for Lewes would have had difficulty disagreeing with a single word of what the hon. Member for Dewsbury said at that conference, at which I was present and where I made the comments that the hon. Gentleman has quoted. I disagree a great deal with the hon. Member for Dewsbury, and recently I have disagreed with some of her colleagues who now speak for Labour on education. There seems to be much disagreement between members of the Labour party on the issue. There is nothing wrong with a political party saying that it is important to rethink policies. That is right, and I admit that my party is having a rethink on a number of issues. I said at my party's conference that we would need to have a major reconsideration of our higher education policies, and especially its funding.

It is proper to admit that one is considering changes. However, it is not helpful for some to make clear to all and sundry that major changes are going on, while others try to pretend that they are not. Labour has been challenged on a number of issues, and those challenges need to be answered. I hope that, in winding up for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) will give clear answers.

For example, the issue of grant-maintained schools has not been properly addressed. I think we are all aware that Labour's shadow spokesman on education, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), recently sent a letter of reassurance to all Labour Members, which stated:

"I thought it would be helpful for you to know that there has been no change of policy in relation to the events of the last few days." That was specifically in relation to grant-maintained schools.

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I am reliably informed that, a couple of days after the hon. Gentleman sent that letter, Mr. Simon Crine, the general secretary of the Fabian Society, said that a debate about future education policy is now raging behind the scenes among the leadership. He is quoted as saying:

"People were wondering what to do about opted-out schools. Some people seem to think the future lies with them. Tony seems to have made the decision for us."

There is certainly confusion within the Labour party.

One question typifies the uncertainty that many of us feel, and I hope that the hon. Member for Yardley will answer it, either in an intervention or when she is summing up. It is the puzzle that senior educationists within the Labour party have about grant-maintained schools.

Perhaps it was best summed up a couple of weeks ago, at a meeting of Labour's consultative forum, which was attended by various education experts. I am reliably informed that Mr. Maxwell Bird, who is Labour's vice -chairman of the ACC education committee, said: "Unless there is a clear- cut Labour party policy returning opt-out schools to the LEAs, there could be a rush to opt out before the schools are handed over to the unitary authorities."

Mr. Enright: In view of our policy on devolution and regional government, will the hon. Gentleman allow that, in view of the current problems facing the Government over the reorganisation of local government, it is extremely difficult to forecast what form of government there will be when we take over? Therefore, it is difficult to say categorically that we would put this into one structure and that into another. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the ultimate aim is to put it in a regional context.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Member adds yet another dimension. The problem is that Labour's spokesman on education, the hon. Member for Brightside, stated categorically in a letter to all Labour Members that there is no change in policy. But we know from meetings with Labour education spokesmen in LEAs that there is talk merely of coming into a local democratically accountable framework. However, it is not specified whether they will be local education authorities. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) who is assisting the leader of the Labour party, recently gave out briefings stating that Labour was not in the business of obliging grant- maintained schools to return to local authority control. That information is on the record. There is considerable confusion. The hon. Member for Hemsworth now says that the policy may be to go into regional government, and that adds a fourth or fifth dimension of uncertainty.

Ms Estelle Morris rose --

Mr. Pawsey: The hon. Lady may add to the size of the hole.

Ms Morris: The hon. Gentleman should know about holes. I am happy to put the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) out of his misery. I am touched by the great amount of interest shown by hon. Members in Labour's education policy. Hon. Members anticipate, as we do, that there will soon be a Labour Government. Their interest is touching.

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The hon. Member for Bath quoted Labour's spokesperson on education as saying that the policy on grant-maintained schools had not changed, and that Labour's policy is to bring them back into a democratic framework. The hon. Gentleman must accept that that is our policy. There will always be an exchange of views about how that will be done, but the letter that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) circulated earlier this week contains Labour's policy. The purpose of the shadow Secretary of State for Education is to give Labour's policy.

There is no way that we will go back to the position of five, 10 or 15 years ago. Things have changed, and local authorities have changed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) said, they will continue to change after local authority reorganisation. Our debate is about the nature of the framework, and the relationship between schools and their communities. The bottom line is that they will be accountable to local communities.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Lady's intervention may save time in her winding-up speech. I am grateful for that clarification, but it does not help many people who do not know what it means when they are told that there will be a democratic framework.

Does it mean that grant-maintained schools will be brought back into LEA control? I tell Conservative Members who have been heckling me that my party's policy is quite clear. We will remove grant-maintained status, and those schools will be brought back under LEA control; the activities of LEAs will be streamlined so that they become light-touch strategic planning bodies.

Mr. Pawsey: There must be roughly about 650,000 children currently being educated in grant-maintained schools, which means that there are more than 1 million parents. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously telling the House that the free and democratic elections that led to the schools becoming grant-maintained schools will go down the drain? Is he really saying that the Liberal Democrats--I ignore the Labour party for a moment--agree with that? I find that truly staggering, and very much hope that those 1 million parents will listen with care to what the hon. Gentleman will say, because it will undoubtedly influence a substantial number of them when they come to cast their votes at any general election.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me the opportunity to put the matter on the record. Before I do so, it is slightly bizarre of the hon. Gentleman to talk about the democratic decisions of those parents, because the Conservative party will never agree to have genuine democracy on the issue and give parents the right not only to vote out of LEA control but, equally, to vote back in if they so wish.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether Liberal Democrat policy is to bring grant- maintained schools back within LEA control. I have already said that, but I am happy to say again to the hon. Gentleman that that is the case. Those parents who want to see their schools have greater individual freedom will find that all schools under our plan will have it--not just grant- maintained schools--because of the restructuring and rearrangements of LEAs,

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which are clearly described in our policy documents and at which on a number of occasions I have offered the hon. Gentleman to look to see where he disagrees with me.

Mr. Robin Squire: I wish to respond to the point about grant- maintained schools wishing to opt back in to LEAs, which the hon. Gentleman trots out from time to time. At the risk of repetition, I would say that he cannot produce an example of one school from the 1,007 that are already operating to show that a governing body has said that it would like to come back in. Then there is the stability. Most hon. Members would see some advantage in ensuring that schools were not switching in and out. The key issue remains, that not one school has given a sign of wanting to come back in, and frankly, one wonders why they would want to.

Mr. Foster: The Minister will be aware that there have been one or two comments on television programmes, although I accept that people have argued that there were misquotes and so on. It is hardly surprising, under the current level of bribes and additional funds that grant-maintained schools-- [Laughter.] Conservative Members laugh, but it is quite frightening to hear that they do not believe that grant-maintained schools continue to get additional financial benefits.

If the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) will bear with me for two seconds while I find what the Secretary of State said about that in relation specifically to this year's Budget--I will come to it in a second- -he will see that the Secretary of State made it clear in her own press release that, in terms of capital funding, grant-maintained schools would continue to be treated favourably, and they are continuing to do better as a result. The hon. Gentleman will remind us of the article in The Times Educational Supplement , but he fails to recognise that a new structure of LEAs is emerging.

Mr. Enright: I would like to give the hon. Member the newspaper quote from the Secretary of State for Education. It reads:

"In perhaps the clearest public admission yet that the Government is stacking the cards in favour of GM schools, Mrs. Shephard told a meeting of the GM headteachers' association last week that `despite very tight constraints on spending generally . . . we have preserved favourable treatment for the GM sector in the allocation of capital provision'."

I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Member.

Mr. Pawsey rose --

Mr. Foster: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have given way to him several times. The House will want me to make a little progress.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Colchester, North, as I have not given way to him yet, but then I must make progress.

Mr. Jenkin: The hon. Gentleman was keen to extract a forecast from the Minister of how many schools will be going grant-maintained in the years ahead. Will the hon. Gentleman give the House a forecast of how many

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schools he thinks will vote to return to local authority control from grant-maintained status? I think that we should know.

Mr. Foster: No, I certainly will not, unless I am allowed to do that in the context of the educational framework that I would like to see in place in this country. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me to do so in the current context, I am not surprised that the Minister was able to say that relatively few want to come back, although one hears increasingly of a number of governors, head teachers, deputies and staff who are concerned about the increasing bureaucracy they have to face.

I have raised a number of issues where I think that there is uncertainty about the Labour party's policy. There continues to be uncertainty about where it stands on league tables, independent schools and so on. Other hon. Members may have the opportunity to raise those issues.

We welcome the fact that there have been some changes in the Government's stance. It is welcome that they now recognise that their grant-maintained policy is beginning to falter and fail-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) chides me. The statistics provided in evidence to the Select Committee are interesting, because they show that there has been 40 per cent. inaccuracy in the Government's prediction of the number of pupils who would be in grant-maintained schools. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the recent statistics for the number of schools that are even considering opting out, let alone choosing to do so through a ballot? He should compare the statistics with those for previous years.

The biggest proof of failure comes in this year's Budget, and in the rate support settlement. Compared with last year, there is to be a 57 per cent. reduction in the budget for grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Jenkin: The policy of grant-maintained schools would be a success even if there were only one such school in the whole country. That school would be enjoying freedom, having got the local education authority out of its hair, and would be providing a better education. In my constituency, all secondary schools have gone for grant-maintained status, so I do not think that the Liberal Democrats or the Labour party will make much progress in my area at the next general election.

Mr. Foster: In view of the poll results today, the hon. Gentleman is making strange predictions about the future of his party. However, I shall not spend more time trying to make him believe that the grant-maintained policy is failing. The evidence is clear, and few schools are now interested in moving in that direction.

The Government's shift on league tables is welcome. As I said in an intervention earlier, only a year ago I raised with the former Secretary of State the importance of incorporating value added information in the tables, and he accused me of wanting to obfuscate the facts. Therefore, it is pleasing that there is now a growing consensus in the House on the importance of presenting a wide range of information about individual schools to parents, pupils and other people within the local community.

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I hope that, over time, the Government will pay more attention than they have done to date to the comments of the National Commission on Education about the 10 qualities that define a successful school. Hon. Members would find it helpful to study those comments if they have not already done so.

Another Government shift welcomed by both sides of the House relates to their previous absolute opposition to a general teaching council, whose importance was so eloquently described by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright). There is growing evidence that the new Secretary of State is more willing to listen to the arguments in favour of such a council. Perhaps, in due course, she will support its establishment. I hope that the Minister will tell us the Government's latest position on that matter.

I now come to points on which I suspect the hon. Member for Lewes and others will begin to disagree with me. I do not believe that we can provide quality education and raise standards unless teachers and other highly trained and motivated people in the education service are given the tools with which to do the job--for example, books, equipment and other resources --and are provided with adequate and appropriate facilities and premises in which to work. The Government have failed in all those respects, by neglecting to invest. They are priming a time bomb, and seem sadly unaware of growing difficulties. The hon. Member for Walton referred to problems in higher education. The massive expansion in numbers in that sector is not properly funded. There has been a massive reduction in expenditure per student, but over the past eight years the costs incurred by universities have increased 8 per cent. in real terms. The service faces growing financial pressures and increasing demoralisation. It must concern hon. Members in all parts of the House that there is an increasing backlog of repairs and maintenance, and a need for additional buildings to cater for growing pupil numbers. The hon. Member for Walton made a graphic reference to worries about the quality of some buildings. Quality education cannot be provided when many schools have leaking roofs, rising damp and dry rot. There is an estimated repair and maintenance backlog of £4.3 billion. Some pupils miss lessons because they are sent home from unsafe classrooms. Coventry's chief education officer, Mr. Farmer, recently stated:

"I know of a primary school held up by the window frames. I would play truant from some of the schools we force our children to attend."

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities also recently stated: "The situation is getting worse by the month. Almost every local education authority has at least one unsafe school."

We cannot provide quality education without tackling the appalling repair and maintenance backlog. The modest Budget increases in the capital programme will go no way to meeting those problems. As to the debate on class sizes, the Minister of State challenged the existence of any real evidence to prove the detrimental effect of class sizes on quality. The hon. Member for Walton replied honestly, that he was not aware of any major research--nor am I. However, in referring to the report produced by four teacher unions

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and the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, the hon. Member for Walton did not quote a remark by one parent that sums up the matter perfectly:

"Any halfwit should realise that increasing class size is detrimental to a child's education."

I entirely agree. When teachers, head teachers, governors, parents and experts all acknowledge the importance of class size in relation to educational quality, it is worrying that Ministers do not share concern about the sizes of classes in which many pupils are taught. For the first time, this year more than 20 per cent. of primary school children are being taught in classes of 31 pupils or more. How can one develop and improve standards if our teachers are increasingly under such stress? Data submitted to the school teachers' pay review body contained worrying statistics about the rising number of workers within the profession who are retiring prematurely on the grounds of ill health.

The National Association of Headteachers refers to that increase in its submission, and says:

"We remain concerned at the continuing high level of teachers, heads and deputies leaving the profession before the normal retirement age of 60. If this trend continues, given the age profile of the profession and the uncertainties of graduate recruitment referred to earlier, then the education service cannot realistically maintain improving standards as reflected in this year's GCSE and A level results".

The problem is a time bomb, which is not being addressed. Reference was also made to concern about the growing number of pupils being excluded from schools. The Minister of State spoke on the radio today in response to a recent survey which shows a significant rise in the number of pupils who are permanently excluded from our schools. I was concerned to hear him say that he was not convinced by the figures. The very worrying figures in the survey have been collected from a large number of local education authorities.

Statistics from local education authorities which were not referred to in the survey show a similar trend. Figures from Essex county council and local education authority--which were not included in the survey released today--show that the number of permanent exclusions has doubled, from 110 in 1992-93 to 221 in 1993-94. How can quality education be provided to pupils when they are excluded from school? I hope that the Minister will be slightly more positive about the Government's reaction to the survey than the Minister of State was. I know that the Minister was unable to attend in the Chamber for the beginning of the debate, but I am sure that he is aware that his hon. Friend referred to special educational needs. I have paid tribute in the House to the Under-Secretary of State for the work that he has done in respect of special educational needs. However, it is worrying that, while we have a code of practice in this area-- it is very welcome-- if resources are not provided to ensure its implementation, the code is not worth the paper it is written on. Currently, many schools fear that they will not be able to implement the code, simply because they do not have the resources either to make special allowance payments to teachers who have the job of co-ordinating the code's implementation, or to find time to allow co-ordinators to undertake in-service training. That is a particular problem in primary schools, where non-contact time is short.

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If we are to have high-quality education in our schools, assessment is clearly very important. Much has been said about testing, assessment and league tables. Hon. Members should be concerned, if they are not already, about the recent Budget's impact upon Ofsted. After all, Ofsted is the body charged with monitoring standards in our schools.

The Budget cuts Ofsted funding substantially, yet it is currently not able to perform its set tasks. I hope that the Minister will respond to that concern in winding up. Once every four years, all primary and secondary schools are meant to have an inspection, but Ofsted is way behind in its inspections this year, because of the system set up by the Government. In the autumn term of 1994, 1,250 primary schools were told that they would be inspected. In practice, only 950 of those schools were visited by an inspection team and 150 of those were not inspected until the following spring term. In the spring term of 1994, 1,267 schools were told that they had been called for inspection and yet I was told by Ofsted yesterday that it expects only just over 850 of those schools to be inspected. It is clear from that evidence that Ofsted is falling a long way behind in meeting its targets yet its budget for next year has been cut by more than 10 per cent.

Ofsted is not able to meet its already great work but it appears from the comments of the Secretary of State for Education that she intends to impose a further burden on Ofsted in relation to nursery provision and to increased support to pre-school playgroup associations. I understand her to be saying that, where money is given, for example, to the Pre-School Playgroups Association, Ofsted will be charged to carry out inspections to ensure value for money and its proper use. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether that is the case.

I am increasingly concerned about the relationship between Ofsted and the Department for Education's school effectiveness division. The Minister may not have time to deal with that matter in his winding-up speech but he may wish to reflect on my concern, which other hon. Members may share, about the growing overlap and confusion between Ofsted and the school effectiveness division.

My speech has ranged widely but I hope that my major concern has come over clearly. Although many good things are going on in our education service as a result of the dedication and hard work of the people working in it, growing strains exist in the education service, which will mean that we shall not be able to continue to develop the education service and standards and to improve quality. If we are going to achieve that, there must be increased investment in our education service.

The worrying thing is that, although we have a modest increase in this year's Budget, in subsequent years, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us, that will decline. We know that even in this year's Budget contains a significant cut that limits what local education authorities are able to do. That will not help standards or improve quality. I hope that the Minister will fight more vigorously for increased resources in our education service.

12.52 pm

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak about standards in education, which is of increasing

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concern to my constituents. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), with whom I share the privilege of being president of the British Youth Council. We both, therefore, take a considerable interest in the issue.

I share the hon. Gentleman's view about the confusion that is now evident in the main Opposition party's thinking on education. In the debate, the hon. Member the Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) asked his party spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), to clarify that a Labour Government would not charge fees for people going into higher education. The official record will, I believe, show that the hon. Member for Walton said that he was sure that that was the case--that those people would not be charged. I then pressed him on the position of the Commission for Social Justice, and he replied that it had made recommendations that the Labour party was still considering.

There is clear confusion between what the hon. Member for Walton initially suggested was the case and what he subsequently clarified as being the case --that there is no direct policy on this matter.

Mr. Kilfoyle: May I clarify the position and exactly what I said? I think that the record should show that I said that we had machinery to consider such matters, and recommendations would go into that machinery.

Mr. Hendry: The hon. Gentleman referred to the 2.5 million young people who were entitled to vote at the previous general election but chose not to do so. He will be doing all he can to entice them to vote Labour. Many will be aspiring to go into further education and they need to know for certain whether a Labour Government would charge them for their fees. It is not sufficient for the Labour party to say that it is "considering" the matter. The commission set up by the Labour party to make recommendations on such matters said that they should be charged and we need the Labour party to state clearly whether it agrees with the commission.

We also need greater clarity on Labour's general education policy. It is not acceptable to tell grant-maintained schools that they will be consulted after the election because, if there were to be a majority Labour Government, which I do not believe will be the case, the Government would be in a position to disregard the schools' views completely and do whatever they wished. The 1 million parents who chose grant-maintained schools need a clearer statement about what the Labour party would do.

The Labour party should also state its position in the interests of fairness. When the hon. Member for Walton was a Whip, his tremendous reputation for fairness was greatly respected by my colleagues. However, I am sure that, out of fairness, he will admit that, when the Labour party was last in opposition in the mid-1970s, it made fine promises about what it would do for education but when it took office it cut the education budget over the next five years by £1.6 million and reduced it as a proportion of gross domestic product by 1 per cent. In the interests of fairness, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make it clear that the Labour Government did not always live up to their promises.

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I wish to concentrate on issues relating directly to my constituents. Over the past few years, there have been significant improvements in examination results. They would not have been possible without testing or had it not been the Government's policy to publish test results. I accept that there are problems in comparing the results of individual schools, because a wide range of factors can help to determine those results.

However, it is worth noting that, in the schools in my constituency, the average number of pupils gaining five grade A to C GCSEs has increased from 49.4 per cent. to 52.8 per cent. in the past year. Results in High Peak are therefore better than the county average. We must ensure that improvements in results are not made at the expense of standards in general. We seek an assurance from the Minister that there will be no pressure to reduce the standard of GCSEs to obtain better results.

We must re-examine the way in which results are portrayed in small schools because, even where the Government allow for significant rounding, an individual student's results can be identified in small schools. That worries teachers, and especially the children and their parents.

There is a school funding crisis in Derbyshire at the moment. In the summer, I spent a significant amount of time consulting the heads of schools and the chairmen of governing bodies trying to establish the source of that crisis. One argument is that it is caused by lack of Government funding, but, in recent years, that funding has risen although the county council has reduced the amount that is spent on education.

One of our concerns in Derbyshire involves the amount of the aggregated schools budget that is spent on schools--we spend 85.01 per cent. and the legal requirement is 85 per cent. Sadly, Derbyshire is one of the six, out of the total of 97, local education authorities that retain centrally the maximum possible amount. That directly affects the sum that can be spent in schools.

I understand the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Walton about school meals. Until recently, £18 million was taken out of the schools budget of Derbyshire to fund school meals, regardless of need. Prosperous parents found that their children at secondary schools--perhaps the grandchildren of the Duke of Devonshire, had they attended those local schools--could have a school meal for 55p. That was an absurd waste of money, because the budget should have been targeted on those in need. The majority of parents, however, were willing to contribute significantly more to the budget.

Under the standard spending assessment the Government allow money to be allocated for sparsity. My constituency covers 400 square miles. The majority of the population live in the two main towns of Buxton and Glossop, but that means that a significant number of small schools are spread around an extremely large rural area. A specific 2 per cent. element of the SSA is designed to relate to sparsity, but, unfortunately, when the county council and the education authority come to dish out the money, they overlook that factor. The small rural schools have not benefited as the Government's policy intended that they should. The upshot is that my constituents are being denied funds that the Government specifically said should go to smaller rural schools.

If the county council had allocated that SSA element, it would amount to £50 per pupil in a secondary school and £37 per pupil in a primary school. It is clear that

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some of the financial problems now faced by local schools would be overcome if the county council allocated the funds intended for them. Hope Valley college, for example, would receive an extra £20,000, and small primary schools with 100 pupils would receive about £4,000 a year. That money would make a real difference.

The problem is how the county council chooses to allocate its funds. It puts enormous emphasis on deprivation. All of us readily accept that, in areas of serious deprivation, extra funding should be given to help to cater for those needs. Because of that factor, Leicestershire, for example, gives £115 for every secondary pupil and Staffordshire gives £264. Derbyshire, however, which cannot readily claim to suffer greater deprivation than those counties, does not just offer the same amounts or a little more than the combined sums, but double the combined amount. It offers £784 per secondary pupil; similarly large amounts are offered to primary schools. Thirteen secondary schools in the county get nothing, even though deprivation exists within their catchment areas-- five of those schools are in High Peak. Another four schools, however, get more than £125,000 a year as a result of that deprivation factor. Schools in my area are losing badly because of the way in which the county council dishes out the money.

According to Government advice, small schools with fewer than 10 staff should be funded by the education authority to cover the actual cost of the teaching staff. The county council resolutely refuses to do that and still wants to work predominantly on an average cost basis. Popular rural schools have the reputation of keeping their teachers for many years, which means that the teachers rise up the income table. Because of the way in which those schools are funded by the county council, however, their own costs for their teachers are not remunerated. The Government's guidance is being ignored by the county council.

I do not wish to get involved in a discussion on the general principle governing grant-maintained status, which has already been covered adequately by hon. Members today. I hope that we are beginning to see that issue being taken out of politics. The fact that the Leader of the Opposition and his wife have exercised their parental right to educate their son in a grant-maintained school will, I hope, mean that we can have more structured, sensible debates about grant-maintained schools than has been possible in the past. I have tended not to get involved in the issues surrounding grant-maintained status in my constituency because I felt that it was a matter for the parents to decide. However, in view of the points that I have raised, that can no longer be the case. The shortfall in the education budget of the schools in my constituency is serious because of the way in which the county council allocates money. Schools have no choice but to consider grant-maintained status. The governors and head teachers would not be doing their jobs properly if they did not consider the issue.

It is not a question of a bribe, as the hon. Member for Bath suggested. Schools are not receiving the budgets that they need because of the way in which the county council divides up the total budget. The budget includes money which is rightfully theirs. The only way in which they can gain it is by obtaining grant-maintained status. As that

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means taking on extra responsibilities currently handled by the education authority, it is right that schools should be compensated for that.

A typical secondary school in High Peak would be about £158,000 a year better off if it achieved grant-maintained status. The smallest secondary school, Buxton St. Thomas More's, would be about £70,000 a year better off. Glossopdale, the largest secondary school in my constituency, would be about £340,000 a year better off. Those are the amounts held back by the county council which schools should receive but do not. Schools could radically improve the standard of education for the children and overcome all their teaching and funding problems by taking that approach.

On average, primary schools would gain £31,000. Very small primary schools--the smallest has fewer than a dozen children--would gain about £7,000 a year. The largest would gain about £90,000 a year. Those are significant sums. If, as a result of the way in which the education authority chooses to allocate its funds, the screw is turned unbearably tight on schools, we shall have to look more widely at the other policies which are available.

No issue causes greater concern to parents in my constituency than the education of their children. They believe that the Government are right to put more emphasis on pushing up basic standards in basic subjects. Overwhelmingly, they back the Government and say that we should test and publish the results. We must also examine the issue of funding. In many cases, the money put in by the Government has increased, but my schools are suffering because they have been deprived of funds which are rightfully theirs by the education authority. It will be up to the heads and governors to decide how they will deal with that issue.

1.7 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West): It is a personal pleasure to speak in a debate opened for the Opposition by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), who is just one shining example of the excellence of the education system in Liverpool. Liverpool seems over the years to have produced far more than its fair share of musicians, poets, scientists and great politicians. I do not suggest that my hon. Friend is a poet.

For at least two decades, discussion in Britain about standards in education has been dominated by the analysis of outcomes, chiefly in terms of the needs of the economy. While I do not minimise the importance of that, over-concentration on it has pushed aside the desire to improve standards for the student as an individual with a growing personality--a future parent, and a future citizen with a role to play in our culture as well as in our economy.

Education is much more complex and important than examination results and what we can gather from them. Education is the business of giving young people the equipment to make their lives more satisfying, and giving them the capacity to make choices and understand that other people have choices that they wish to make, to reach compromises, to contribute positively to all the functions of social living and, as the Minister said at the beginning of the debate, to explore every avenue of knowledge. The standards that we should seek are those that are achieved in all those aspects of education, including, but not relying exclusively on, examination results.

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The Government's presumption is that standards--even the cripplingly limited ones that they target--are improved by choice. Parents will choose the best school and the best courses for their children. If the choice turns out to be wrong, that is the parents' fault and education authorities at all levels will not be to blame. That choice-making, naturally, will force all schools to come up to scratch and, if they do not, the free market will see to it that the failures will disappear.

"Choice" is attractive as a slogan, but the Government remain unconcerned about the areas in which one person's choice removes another's. I hope to illustrate that in a moment.

It is in the nature of any market that some people, through strength, ability, luck, inherited means or whatever will succeed while others fail. The comprehensive system ensured that the choices that were made by individuals minimised damage to other people's choices. The result, as was mentioned--inadvertently, I think--by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) earlier, was a huge increase in the numbers of students in the country achieving exam successes at O-level, GCSE and A-level and ultimately qualifying for higher education.

Eleven-plus selection was enormously unpopular; so much so that the Government have not sought to restore it as such. The totality of the Government's changes to the mechanisms of education, however, amount to a newer and more tricky and insidious selective system, whose results are beginning to be apparent. In their claims to be improving standards, the Government are essentially talking about improving educational standards for part of the school population. It is essentially, in its effect, an elitist programme, and its mechanism is divisive and competitive.

League tables are at the very root of what is going wrong with our education system. I note with care what my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), has been saying about Labour's attitude towards league tables. Specifically, in his article in The Times , with which I agree, he said:

"League tables should not be employed as the public hand of the `market system' in education. They should be used to lift and support schools rather than to embarrass or denigrate them."

Quite so. However, I have to say to my hon. Friend that that is easier said than done.

League tables, as they are now, are designed to compare raw output in terms of exam results. We need to be aware of the consequences of that for the practice of education in specific cases.

Last week, I visited a fine primary school in Skelmersdale, in my constituency, where the percentage of pupils with statemented and non- statemented special needs is 65 per cent. The three secondary schools in the town have about 50 per cent. of pupils with special needs, but within four miles of Skelmersdale there are six comprehensive schools--high schools and grammar schools, which are all supposed to be comprehensive-- which do not have nearly as high a percentage of pupils with special needs. Some of them have a largely favoured intake from well-to-do districts. That example in my constituency is typical of the position in many places.

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