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House of Commons

Tuesday 13 December 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


British Waterways Bill


As amended, considered; to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions


Parental Consultation

1. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Secretary of State for Education by what methods she consults parents about their view of the level and extent of the education service.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr. Eric Forth): All the Department's Ministers frequently meet parents and their representatives, both in formal meetings and when visiting schools. We regularly consult parents' organisations on a range of issues.

Mr. Mackinlay: When contemplating parents' views and representations, does the Minister reflect on the fact that since 1989 there has been a doubling in the number of appeals from parents who have been refused their first choice for their children's school? On appeal, some 17,000 people have had their request for a school rejected. Does that not show a failure of the Education Reform Act 1988, and is it not time that we reviewed it to ensure that parents have true choice about school admissions?

Mr. Forth: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has quite caught up with the rest of his party, or certainly with his party leader. There is a new air blowing through certain elements of the Opposition on choice, and we welcome that. We want to give parents the maximum possible choice of schools. Happily, about four out of five parents get their first choice, but every year a certain number are inevitably disappointed and have to go through an appeals procedure. I suspect that that will always happen, because man has yet to devise a scheme under which everybody gets just what he wants all the time.

Mr. Colvin: Do Ministers' consultations with parents reveal their anxiety about the reorganisation of local government? Can my hon. Friend assure us that new unitary authorities such as that for New Forest, if they

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come into being, will have the resources to enable them to deliver an education service that is as good as, if not better than, the previous one?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State keeps a close eye on developments in local government reorganisation. We feel that the initial onus is on parents and local people to make representations to the Local Government Commission in the first place if they are uneasy about the possible impact on education of the proposed changes. Beyond that, we think that it should be possible to make arrangements in areas where unitary authorities emerge to protect the education service and to ensure continuity and effective delivery in the newly defined areas. We shall keep a close eye on the matter.

Mr. Dafis: Local government reorganisation is already under way in Wales and will soon be under way in England. Local authorities will set up transitional committees charged with the task of describing their service delivery plans, including those that relate to education. Will it not be almost impossible to carry out that task properly if there is no certainty for local education authorities about the number of schools for which they will have to cater? In view of that, is it not totally irresponsible at this time--

Madam Speaker: Order. This is Question Time and hon. Members are drifting towards making statements and putting arguments. I am sure that the Minister has heard the question. Can he make some stab at an answer?

Mr. Forth: Intriguingly, I do not think that we got to the punchline. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may have had in mind something to do with grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Dafis indicated assent .

Mr. Forth: I thought that it might be that; in that case, the answer is quite clear. It is incumbent on present, future and even transitional authorities to liaise with the Funding Agency for Schools, as was always the intention in the Education Bill, now the Education Act 1994. I recall that the hon. Gentleman served with great distinction on the Committee that examined that Bill. Those bodies should work together to ensure that sufficient places are provided in each locality. I see absolutely no reason why that should not be the case.

School Inspections

2. Mr. Hendry: To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many schools will be inspected each year under the new school inspection arrangements; and if she will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mrs. Gillian Shephard): This is mainly matter for Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, who heads the independent Office for Standards in Education. However, I can advise that around 3,000 schools will be inspected this year.

Mr. Hendry: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the rate of inspection in primary schools will be stepped up to ensure that inspection targets are met? Can she

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also confirm that the inspectors will give praise where praise is due and that they will be not only rigorous in identifying problems but equally helpful in providing solutions?

Mrs. Shephard: Clearly, encouragement is also important. I can reassure my hon. Friend that I attach the utmost importance to regular and rigorous inspection of our schools. Around 1,000 secondary schools have been inspected and the cycle is on target to be completed within four years. By the end of this term, about 800 primary schools will have been inspected, and I intend to ensure that the four-year cycle for primary and special schools is successfully completed. I welcome, therefore, the three- point action plan announced by the Office for Standards in Education and will keep it closely monitored.

Mr. Don Foster: Further to the answer that the Secretary of State has just given, is she aware that, to meet the target for primary schools, the number of schools to be inspected in the three subsequent years after the current academic year will have to be double the number of schools inspected this year? How can that be achieved without reductions in the length of inspections and the number of inspectors at a time when the budget for Ofsted has been reduced for next year compared to what we were told it would be last year?

Mrs. Shephard: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not entirely familiar with the action plan which has been prepared by the chief inspector and which we absolutely intend he should adhere to. I wish to reassure the hon. Gentleman that funding will rise next year to nearly £100 million and in the public expenditure survey period to £121 million, which is hardly a cut.

Mr. Patrick Thompson: Will the new inspection arrangements focus properly on standards achieved in English and mathematics? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many specialist and advanced teachers cite lack of facility in basic English as the main stumbling block to achievement at a later stage in education?

Mrs. Shephard: We have made it clear throughout that the reform of the national curriculum and the main thrust of tests must put facility in English, maths and science at a high premium.

Mr. Blunkett: Will the Secretary of State confirm that the fact that only 60 per cent. of the primary schools that should have been inspected actually had inspections by this autumn is entirely due to the fact that the privatised market tendering system for individual schools has failed? Will she further confirm that the Government's programme and their claim to be interested in standards have been shown to be an entire myth, given that £13 million has been cut from the Ofsted budget for next year and the reading recovery scheme funding programme has been stopped? Is it not time that the Government admitted that their blarney and hot air about standards of achievement are nothing more than a smokescreen for cuts and failure?

Mrs. Shephard: If Opposition Members were remotely interested in standards--time and again, they have proved that they are not--they would welcome the fact that, after only four terms, 2,200 schools will have been inspected by Christmas and 3,000 inspections

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will have been completed by the end of the year. Schools and governors welcome the inspection process and the information that it gives them, and, above all, pupils benefit. The new system is operating successfully; it is a huge improvement on what went on before. The hon. Gentleman is right: the chief inspector should take early corrective action to meet the target of four-yearly inspections of all schools. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

Higher Education

3. Mr. Evennett: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what proportion of young people are now entering higher education; and what was the figure 10 years ago.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell): The Government's policies have led to record participation in higher education. Some 30 per cent. of young people now enter full-time higher education compared with 14 per cent. 10 years ago.

Mr. Evennett: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate him and the Department on the excellent figures that he has just provided. I also thank him for taking the time and trouble recently to visit our local university in south-east London, the university of Greenwich. His visit was much appreciated by all concerned. It is an excellent university doing a first-class job. May I ask my hon. Friend what he is doing to encourage more links for research between the universities and industry so that we can develop a good partnership?

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comment and, indeed, his interest in his local university in Greenwich. I was delighted with the provision that I saw there. The message is that local participation and the role of the university in the local community and its link with industry there are extremely important. On my hon. Friend's specific point, the Department is taking a number of measures, including enterprise and higher education, and have given a commitment to assess all kinds of research, including contract research, in the funding council's next research selectivity exercise.

Mr. Pike: Is it not regrettable that many county councils are unable to give people discretionary grants because they simply do not have enough cash? It is no good the Minister saying that they have a choice. If county councils do not have the cash, they cannot give grants. What will the Minister do about that?

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting, if somewhat irrelevant, point. I was under the impression that the local authority financial settlement was about £17 billion. I have held a series of discussions with interested parties in the light of the Gulbenkian report on discretionary awards, and the Department is continuing to review the position with a

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view to securing achievements; but the funding is there and it is open to local authorities to provide that funding for the purpose.

Mr. Barry Field: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great success stories in education was the unshackling of colleges from the control of local authorities? Has that not given greater diversity of choice to sixth form students, who, rather than furthering their education, were held on to by schools because of the budget that they represented? Will he ensure that, in future, the careers service is up to this new challenge?

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. We believe in diversity and choice. We believe in the benefits of unshackling the further education sector, with its natural and characteristic progression towards higher education where appropriate.

Special Needs

4. Mr. Bayley: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what funding has been added to local education authority budgets to meet the extra costs incurred by the implementation of the new code of practice for special educational needs in primary schools.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: The code of practice has been widely welcomed as reflecting existing best practice in schools. Many schools will have been following the procedures recommended in the code, and its purpose is to encourage others to do so.

Mr. Bayley: Given the great demands on the special educational needs co-ordinator, as spelt out in the code of practice, will the Secretary of State say what account she has taken--in the funding that she has made available to local authorities--of the problems of rural authorities such as North Yorkshire, which has a large number of small primary schools, and where the heads of schools, who would normally be the special educational needs co-ordinators there, also have formidable teaching commitments?

Mrs. Shephard: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the code followed extensive consultation and included points on the work load of teachers, head teachers, and so on. Indeed, it was redrafted in the light of the concerns expressed. The Department is funding research into effective practice by SEN co-ordinators, or those who have to fill that role in small rural schools. We will publish the results and will look at all aspects of implementation, as it is obviously very important, including the question of resources. The main point is that the code is building on existing best practice.

Sir John Hannam: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the new code of practice. Will she outline what measures are in place to ensure that schools spend what they should on children with special educational needs?

Mrs. Shephard: The only extra requirement for schools, resulting from the code, is that they should publish their policy on special educational needs by August next year. In-service funding of £5.6 million

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will be provided through grants for education support and training to local education authorities to help schools with that.

Student Loans

5. Mr. Steinberg: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations she has received regarding delays in the processing of applications for student loans in the current academic year.

Mr. Boswell: My right hon. Friend has received a copy of a letter from the chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of Universities in the United Kingdom to the chief executive of the Student Loans Company, and 14 other letters about delays in the processing of loans. The Department has also received a number of telephone calls from students, their parents and higher education institutions.

Mr. Steinberg: In terms of what the Minister said, there appears to be chaos in the Student Loans Company. What will he do about the thousands of students who failed to get their loans this year? Will he explain a parliamentary answer that he gave me last week in which he said that he was considering putting private finance into that company? What will be the consequences of that in terms of interest rates for students who took out such a loan afterwards?

Mr. Boswell: Perhaps characteristically, the hon. Gentleman has managed to muddle two separate issues. First, there is currently what I consider to be an unacceptable delay at the Student Loans Company in relation to the repeat application procedure. I should acknowledge that more than 200,000 loans have been granted in the current year--the number has risen by over one third--but the new procedure has led to delays, partly owing to the inability of students to return their forms.

The company has written to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals explaining the position. We have encouraged the company to deal with it as a matter of urgency; it is doing so, and hopes to resolve the problem by Christmas. It has also undertaken, at our request, to examine the repeat application procedure, and we have invited the National Union of Students to join in.

The involvement of private finance, whether in the Student Loans Company or elsewhere, is kept under constant review.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: May I thank my hon. Friend for his efforts to tackle the problem? Students at my local university undoubtedly had problems, particularly--as my hon. Friend pointed out--with the repeat application procedure. I am glad that my hon. Friend has confirmed that he has no intention of privatising the Student Loans Company. The only pressing issue is the financing of loans.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what she has said. We are anxious to tackle the position in conjunction with the Student Loans Company, and it is being addressed as a matter of urgency.

As for the longer-term prospects, I should remind the House that the whole purpose of the Student Loans Company was to offer students concessionary loans on

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very favourable terms, thus enabling them to pursue their studies. In a recent study of graduate employment, one of the newspapers listed a series of starting salaries, none of which would have required the initial repayment of loans by any of the employees.

Mr. Bryan Davies: Does the Minister recognise that the House will be shocked at the complacency with which he has approached the issue? He has issued not a word of apology to the thousands of students who have been deprived of essential resources. If the elderly had been deprived of the chance of obtaining their pensions, or the unemployed prevented from drawing their dole cheques, there would have been a national uproar. How can the Minister address the House with such complacency when students are denied the resources they need to sustain themselves at college?

Does the Minister not recognise that Members of Parliament are finding it difficult to get through to the Student Loans Company to protest about the situation on behalf of the students whom they represent? When will the Minister do something?

Mr. Boswell: Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman seems to have drafted his supplementary question before listening to my answer. I readily acknowledge that I was not satisfied with the position; nor, indeed, is the Student Loans Company, which is doing something about it as urgently as possible. As for the hon. Gentleman's specific point, his hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) asked me about the number of representations that we had received and I gave him the answer--14. The position became apparent recently, and as soon as it became apparent we tackled it vigorously and urgently.

Mr. John Marshall: Did my hon. Friend say that there had been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of student loans paid out? Does the problem not lie in the fact that the Student Loans Company listened to inaccurate forecasts from Opposition Members, who said that there would be no demand for student loans? Does the increase not underline the fact that the scheme has become much more popular than the Opposition ever expected?

Mr. Boswell: The purpose of the loans is to be available to those who wish to avail themselves of them; the facility is intended to enable them to pursue their studies. The figure mentioned by my hon. Friend is not entirely accurate--he may have misheard me. The total increase this year is 35 per cent., and that is despite the administrative difficulties that I mentioned.

Grant-maintained Schools

6. Mr. Bill Michie: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans she has to phase out extra capital grants to grant-maintained schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): The distribution of capital resources continues to reflectMinisters' judgment of appropriate funding levels in each sector, and our commitment to setting up grant-maintained schools on

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a sound basis. The detail of the capital grants regime for grant-maintained schools is now a matter for the Funding Agency for Schools.

Mr. Michie: Another Tory pledge has not been fulfilled. Following the Budget settlement, local education authorities now face cuts while grant-maintained schools still receive three times as much capital per head. Is it not about time that the Government treated local education authorities with fairness rather than prejudice, and eliminated a gap that is not only indefensible but immoral?

Mr. Squire: The hon. Gentleman is misled and his comments are facile. Let me briefly give him some reasons why. He seeks, presumably, to make a pound for pound comparison, yet he knows, or should know, that every GM school is not able to draw on capital receipts or to transfer from revenue expenditure to capital, like local education authorities can. To take one further instance, GM schools attract VAT, and LEA schools do not. Spending £1 in a GM school, therefore, is not the same as spending £1 in an LEA school. The Government are satisfied that the settlement is fair to GM schools, but not excessively fair.

Mr. Robert Banks: I offer my most sincere thanks to my hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for approving the application for grant-maintained status from Nunmonkton school in my constituency. It is the result of a remarkable campaign by all 19 pupils-- [Interruption.] --all the parents and all the villagers. They have led the way against North Yorkshire county council's decision to close the school. It means that the school can go ahead and will be saved, and I pass on the appreciation of all the villagers to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Squire: I am obviously grateful for my hon. Friend's kind comments. I agree with him that Nunmonkton school has all the prospects of being an excellent school and the House will have no noted the derision with which Opposition Members greeted his announcement that there were 19 pupils at the school. All people worried about small rural schools will know which party not to trust.

Dr. Wright: Although the Government have talked the language of diversity, have they not given us the practice of discrimination in relation to the funding of GM schools? Has that discrimination not been established both by the Education Select Committee and by the National Audit Office? Once the pot of gold and the bribe are taken away, interest in moving to GM status will wane by the day.

Mr. Squire: In light of current discussions, I am not sure whether interest in GM schools is waning or whether it would be wise for me to comment on that, if one considers the hon. Gentleman's party. As he should know, revenue funding for GM schools is on the same basis as revenue funding for LEA schools, and he heard my earlier answer on capital funding.

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School Building Programme

7. Sir Teddy Taylor: To ask the Secretary of State for Education if she will review the provision of capital expenditure in the school building programme.

Mr. Robin Squire: The Budget announcement meant good news for schools capital, with an additional £21 million above the published baseline for 1995-96. We have made clear our willingness to consider changes to the criteria for distributing capital, which were agreed with the local authority associations some 10 years ago.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Southend's Lancaster school for disabled children, many of whom are in wheelchairs, has been unable to undertake essential work demanded by the Health and Safety Executive two years ago. Does the Minister see any merit in the all-party representations that he received on 14 November from Essex county council that its spending was inadequate and discriminatory? Has any concession since been made to Essex county council?

Mr. Squire: As my hon. Friend may be aware, the announcement on 1995 -96 capital guidelines will be made shortly and I cannot, for obvious reasons, preview that announcement. I can say to him, and underline, that responsibility for building and conditions for LEA schools remains with the local authority. As I have already made clear, the guidelines were drawn up in discussion with local authorities many years ago and I am open to suggestions from a significant number of authorities that there is room for those guidelines to be changed.

Mr. Spearing: Does the Minister agree that, where a Government have given authority or promoted large-scale urban or suburban development in any region, there is an obligation to provide matching provision for primary schools and secondary schools in those neighbourhoods? Is this a matter not just for one Department of State but for all Departments? Will he assure us that that principle will be followed in the announcement to which he referred?

Mr. Squire: I can certainly confirm that the most important aspect of the capital criteria is provision for basic needs. Although there are sometimes arguments about the exact cost of specific projects, there is no argument between the Government and local education authorities about the importance of ensuring that every child has a school place when he starts or changes school.

General National Vocational Qualifications

8. Mr. Brandreth: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what progress has been made with the development of an advanced diploma for the GNVQ; and if she will make a statement.

Mr. Boswell: I understand that my hon. Friend is referring to advanced general national vocational qualifications--the new "vocational A- levels". They are a success. They are motivating students of all abilities to work hard and achieve high standards. Ofsted and the

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Further Education Funding Council inspectorate have confirmed that standards in advanced GNVQs are comparable to two GCE A-levels.

Mr. Brandreth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he confirm that he will continue to do everything he can to enhance the standing of advanced GNVQs so that they are increasingly recognised not only by employers but, in time, by universities?

Mr. Boswell: Universities are already accepting advanced level GNVQs in significant numbers. Approximately 85 per cent. of people who applied received offers from universities and there is a gate project designed to inform universities and admissions tutors of their exact merits. The Government have done a great deal, but the task now is to ensure rigour and effectiveness in GNVQs and their acceptability by higher education institutions.

Lancashire Schools

9. Mr. Gordon Prentice: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment she is making of the work of the Institute of Education in determining the added value contribution of schools in Lancashire to the education of their students.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: The Department has established close links with the Institute of Education about its work on value added in Lancashire schools and on other aspects of school improvement and effectiveness.

Mr. Prentice: Are not the conclusions of the Lancashire study inescapable, showing that the publication of raw data is in itself highly misleading and can be very damaging? Does the Secretary of State agree that it is no more appropriate to publish raw data in that form than to judge the effectiveness of the economy by using a single measure such as inflation?

Mrs. Shephard: I understand that the Lancashire study is producing results consistent with other work--namely, that the prior attainment measures at age 11 are the best predictors of performance at age 16. In the light of that, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will be doing all he can to persuade the National Union of Teachers to co-operate in the administration of tests for 11-year-olds.

Mr. Hawkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the enormous support given to school performance tables by the parents of children in Lancashire is reflected elsewhere in the country? Does she further agree that we are witnessing a desperate attempt by the Opposition to shift their ground? Are they not moving from ignorance, prejudice and outright opposition to performance tables in an attempt to fudge the issue and claim that they supported them all along?

Mrs. Shephard: I agree with my hon. Friend that performance tables are popular and easily understood and that they provide the facts. Schools recognise that they are a major factor in encouraging improvements in

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performance. They are important to parents, pupils, governors and the communities served by the schools involved.

Mr. Blunkett: Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Lancashire county council and a range of other Labour authorities which have been working on added value, not to denigrate the schools involved but to increase standards and opportunities and to ensure that all children have a chance to achieve? Does she accept that she has done a complete about-face in accepting that added value and not crude league tables is the way forward?

Mrs. Shephard: I remind the hon. Gentleman that, far from performing a U-turn, Ministers launched a consultation exercise on assessment in 1992 and at the same time asked for respondents' initial views on publishing value added measures. No doubt that escaped the attention of the Opposition, who at the time were busy opposing the publication of performance tables.

Primary Schools

11. Mr. Bennett: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps she is taking to improve resources in primary schools.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: It is for local education authorities to decide the level of resources to be available to primary schools and to the other education services for which they are responsible.

Mr. Bennett: What advice can the Secretary of State give to head teachers in Tameside and Stockport who find that they are receiving between £300 and £200 per pupil less than neighbouring schools just across the border in Manchester? Given that they have checked up on the way in which local authorities spend their money, and given the capping that those authorities are under, it seems extremely difficult for those head teachers to find out why they should be receiving so much less than schools in Manchester. The only explanation that they can come up with is that the Government are treating schools in Thameside and Stockport unfairly. Does the Secretary of State agree that if league tables are to be used, at least some measure ought to be taken of the amount of money that schools have to spend in the first place?

Mrs. Shephard: I remind the hon. Gentleman that even with the capping rules all LEAs will be able to increase their education budgets next year if they so chose. They will be greatly helped by the low level of inflation, which is two percentage points lower than was forecast when the 1994-95 settlement was agreed. Local authorities therefore receive a windfall benefit this year. That will benefit the hon. Gentleman's local authority as well as all others.

Sir Peter Fry: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way in which we could help to improve the resources in primary schools is to recognise those LEAs and those schools which are already educating the rising-fives? In the current financial settlement, that is proving difficult without any Government grant. Will my right hon. Friend

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give an early response so that those who are making that pioneering progress are getting some kind of assistance from the central taxpayer?

Mrs. Shephard: That and other matters are under consideration in our review of work on education for children in the pre-school years.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Does the Secretary of State accept the evidence that there are lasting benefits from educating pupils in smaller classes in their early years? If so, when will she seek a significant national shift of funding towards primary schools?

Mrs. Shephard: Funding priorities are a matter for local education authorities. I must repeat that to the hon. Gentleman. The size of classes therefore depends on the decisions made by LEAs. In any case, there is no evidence that marginal increases in class sizes threaten standards.

School League Tables

12. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans she has to introduce further school league tables; and if she will make a statement.

Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend intends to publish the national curriculum assessment results for 11-year-olds in national school performance tables once the assessment arrangements for this age group are satisfactorily established. Full consultation will be undertaken in due course on the presentation of the data.

Mr. Greenway: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be best not to try to dress up school league tables with subjective and therefore dangerous value added judgments? Will not a Rolls-Royce always be a Rolls- Royce and a Mini always a Mini? How can objectivity, which is vital, be achieved in that important area?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is correct in saying that it would be quite wrong to seek to massage or tweak the published performance data on schools to try to conceal bad performance. However, I think that there is broad agreement that an appropriate and factual measure of value added by schools is something towards which we are working and which we would probably envisage implementing in stages over the next few years. Nevertheless, I must not underestimate the difficulties. The recent report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State by the Schools, Curriculum and Assessment Authority brought out rather well the difficulties and the potential in that area and we are working towards that end.

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