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Question accordingly agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Town and Country Planning (Scotland)

That the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

Question agreed to.



That Sir Nicholas Fairbairn be discharged from the Scottish Affairs Committee and Mr. Tim Devlin be added to the Committee.--[ Mr MacKay, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]

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Secondary Schools (Bristol)

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

11.11 pm

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West): Since I was first elected to serve as Member of Parliament for Bristol, North-West in 1983, I have been conscious of an undercurrent of disquiet among parents in my constituency over whether their children are getting the best opportunity through the state secondary education system. It is only in the past three years since the Government started publishing national tables of the individual results achieved by state secondary schools that those worries have been brought into focus. One year's figures may have been unreliable, two years' figures may have been merely a snapshot, but when this year's figures confirmed the trend apparent from the previous two, I felt that it was necessary to introduce the debate, to discuss what is going wrong in state secondary education in the schools in Bristol, North-West and what can be dome about it.

There are eight state secondary schools within the boundaries of my constituency, excluding one special school. The comments that follow will relate exclusively to those eight--Filton high school, Henbury school, Lawrence Weston school, Lockleaze school, Monks Park school, Pen Park school, Portway school and St. Bede's Roman Catholic school. Five of those schools have sixth forms and offer A-level courses. The three that do not are Lawrence Weston, Pen Park and St. Bede's. My comments do not relate to other schools outside the constituency boundaries, to which a number of parents nevertheless send their children, such as Marlwood and the Castle in Thornbury, the Ridings in Winterbourne and Cotham towards the centre of Bristol. Nor do my comments relate in any way to the private schools in the constituency, as will be apparent when I mention that, within a quarter of mile of each other and my home in Bristol, are two of the finest private secondary schools for girls in the country: Red Maids and Badminton. I should also make it clear that my comments relate to and are based exclusively on achievement.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stern: On the hon. Lady's undertaking to be fairly brief, since we have a lot to get through, I would be delighted to give way.

Ms Corston: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, if one compares academic achievements of this year with last year, Filton high school made a 28 per cent. improvement in examination results, Lawrence Weston school a 183 per cent. improvement and the Portway school a 26 per cent. improvement, while for vocational courses, the pass rates were anything between 87 and 100 per cent? When the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) was Secretary of State for Education, he visited Pen Park school, told the staff that it was excellent and wrote to the local authority to confirm that.

Mr. Stern: I am well aware of the last fact because I visited the school at the same time as the then Secretary of State. I think that the hon. Lady will find that although the figures that she quoted are accurate, I shall put a slightly different gloss on them.

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My comments relate to and are based exclusively on academic achievement. I am well aware of the other factors, all of them important, that go to make a good and successful school, and often counter-balance an apparent lack of academic achievement. I believe, however, that the majority of parents who make an informed choice as to the school to which to send their children will be concerned that their children gain the best possible chances in academic terms. It is on the basis of that assumption that I feel compelled to take up parliamentary time to outline the particular problems of the schools in my constituency.

Of the eight schools that I listed, only one even meets the Avon average for the number of pupils passing five or more GSCEs at grades A to C, and that is St Bede's, which has been so consistent over the past three years. All credit to it, in passing the Avon average and that of the whole of England in each of the three years.

None of the other seven schools in any of the three years has met the average for Avon. Those who know Avon will not be surprised to know that its average is consistently lower than that of the country as a whole.

In 1992, the national average for a state secondary school in terms of pupils passing five or more GCSEs at grades A to C was 38; in my constituency, even taking into account St. Bede's, which, as I said, consistently performs better than the national average, the average was 23.5. Despite rising averages for both Avon and the country as a whole, that for Bristol, North-West schools has remained stubbornly around that figure. Indeed, between 1992 and 1994, whereas the county average--as I said, it remains consistently lower than the average for the country as a whole--rose by four, the average for the schools in my constituency rose by 0.2.

In terms of academic achievement, the position is even worse at A-level. Of the five secondary schools offering A-level courses in my constituency, it is not only that the average for all five schools is consistently much lower than that of the county in terms of points score for A-level passes; not one school of the five in any of the three years that has been measured has ever reached the county average, which again is consistently below the national average. I do not relate any of those facts with relish, because they represent a failure on the part of the state education system at secondary level in my constituency to provide what the rest of the county would regard as an acceptable level of attainment at both GCSE and A-level, and the failure of the county to provide what would be regarded in the rest of the country as adequate education attainment at both levels of examination. Now that the Government have rightly made it possible for those conclusions to be drawn and education attainment to be measured, I want to refer both to the reasons for that failure of the state education system to provide adequate academic education for the children of my constituents and to what can be done about it.

In our decentralised education system, it is clear that the prime fault must lie with the local education authority. For many years I have argued that the retention of many surplus places in schools within the county has led to a lower quality of education, and only now do we have the figures to prove me right. For whatever reason, I have no desire to blame either any political party or any officers or

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employees of the county--it has decided to pursue other objectives than the closure of surplus places, such as the elimination of single-sex education within the state system and a rabid opposition to grant maintenance.

The county will argue that it has not had enough money to provide adequate education, although it has never been able to convince me, and I am not sure that it has ever been able to convince my hon. Friend the Minister, that it is significantly worse or better off than any comparable county that is able to achieve closer to the national average in education attainment. It will argue that the brightest pupils are creamed off into the private sector. Yet that is not uncommon in any city. It may raise other arguments, but the central fact that cannot be escaped is that, whoever or whatever is to blame, it is the children of my constituents who know that, if they go to a school in my constituency--with one exception their average educational attainment will be lower than elsewhere. Now that the information is available, I doubt whether there is any point in looking to Avon to make rapid changes. Avon, in any case, is about to be abolished, but the sort of changes that Avon needs to make, in my view in the closure of surplus places, will come too slowly to save the next few years' school children. Although I shall be interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on the subject, I doubt whether the application of further public money in the short term will make any significant difference.

The Government have now been in power for 15 years. In that time, their policies have clearly made no significant impact on educational attainment within the schools in my constituency. I cannot expect the Minister to produce an answer tonight or in the short term, because the local education authority must be the prime mover. Nor do I accept that the Government can remove from themselves all responsibility for the fact that, as the knowledge of what is available, particularly for brighter children in state schools in my constituency, becomes more widespread, the sense of desperation among parents can only deepen. Is there any power, any initiative or scheme that my hon. Friend the Minister can hold out that will offer even a hope of improvement in the sorry picture that I have described? 11.20 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Education (Mr. Eric Forth): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) for giving me the opportunity to reply to the very important points that he has made today. The debate illustrates well my hon. Friend's continuing and great concern, which he has expressed in many ways and over a long time, about the effectiveness of the provision of education in and around his constituency.

I welcome my hon. Friend's tribute for the new information provided by the publication of school performance data to parents at large, and particularly to parents of children in his schools. I immediately accept and acknowledge that the publication of the results have different effects on different people. My hon. Friend has illustrated that fact by saying that he believes that the information has given rise to many concerns among parents in his constituency. That can be an effect of the additional transparency provided by publishing and making widely available information about the effectiveness of schools.

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The positive side is that it also gives parents an opportunity to understand better what is happening in schools and to raise questions for themselves and their children, and hopefully through that process, with governors and head teachers about what is happening in schools. We are still in the relatively early stages of that process, but it is one that holds out considerable hope for the future.

Today's debate has already turned the spotlight on the quality of education in my hon. Friend's constituency to such an extent that the head teacher of Filton high school, one of the schools mentioned by my hon. Friend, took the trouble to contact my office today because he wanted to point out that he believes that his school has recorded significant achievements this year. He pointed out that his school appears in the good schools guide and that its results have improved by 6 per cent. He said that 190 surplus places are to be removed at the school in a forthcoming reorganisation.

That point illustrates the value of a debate like this, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be grateful for that, and the extent to which at least one head teacher in my hon. Friend's constituency wanted to take the trouble to point out what he believes are significant improvements being made in his school. We should all be grateful for that.

My hon. Friend listed actual comparative performances and went into some detail about them. He emphasised what he saw as the lack of educational progress or improvement in his constituency. He analysed what he saw as the reasons for failure of state or county provided education. He first mentioned surplus places and I agree that that is an important issue. It is one on which the Department for Education and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools are placing increasing emphasis. We have argued for some time that, if an authority allows a surplus of school places to continue over a period, that means that education money is wasted and is not spent as it should be in schools to provide the most effective education for pupils.

Although I would gather from what the head teacher of Filton has told us that a rather belated start has made to overcome the problems in my hon. Friend's constituency, I suspect that there is some way to go. I hope that the local education authority will tackle the surplus places problem with vigour in order to release much-needed education money for use in schools and in classrooms, where it can be best deployed.

Ms Corston: If the Government are so concerned about surplus places in Avon, can the Minister explain why they saw fit to build a city technical college in Bristol?

Mr. Forth: The CTC was a great step in the direction of providing quality and diversity of education. It is a beacon of excellence. The more excellent it becomes, the more, regrettably, the differential between its performance and those of the schools around is highlighted. Rather than decry the achievements of the CTC, I hope that the other schools will see it as a source of inspiration. My hon. Friend mentioned the alibi that is sometimes used by LEAs, not least, I suspect, his own, when they make a plea about not having enough money. That is an interesting argument, because, in 1993-94, Avon received £2,566 per secondary pupil, whereas next-door Gloucestershire received £2,541. The interesting fact is that Gloucestershire's GCSE A to C grade results were better than Avon's-- 46.3 per cent against 40.1 per cent.

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One can draw a number of conclusions from those figures, but the one that comes to my mind--those present who listen to education debates will be able to predict what I am about say--is that there is no proven connection between the amount of money available to schools or to authorities and their educational outcomes.

The plea from LEAs that they do not have enough money will not wash, because it can be demonstrated that many of the authorities which receive far more per pupil than others still perform badly in educational terms. That excuse in unacceptable. I hope that it is also unacceptable to parents. If they are told by their LEA that it cannot provide a decent education because it does not get enough money, those parents should reject that excuse outright. They should note that it can be demonstrated that authorities who receive relatively low amounts of money per pupil manage to educate those pupils extremely well.

I was disturbed by my hon. Friend's comment that, despite the fact that the Government had been in power for many years, he had not seen an acceptable increase in educational attainment in his constituency. It is important to note, however, that we now have a national curriculum, which has been settled and agreed, on which teachers can concentrate. A testing regime is beginning to be established. I emphasise "beginning", because the key stage 2 test, the important test at the end of primary schooling, will not be introduced until next year. I hope that hon. Members present share my warm welcome of today's announcement about that by the National Union of Teachers. I hope that all those developments mean that we will now be able to establish a properly established regular testing regime, precisely so that we know the attainment of pupils of our schools and, moreover, know their needs in more detail than in the past. I hope that when that is combined with teacher assessment it will give us a firm base on which to do that.

Now that Ofsted, the independent inspectorate, is inspecting schools for the first time on a regular, objective basis and highlighting schools that fail their pupils by failing to provide an acceptable standard of education, we have the beginning of a series of measures in place--there are others--which will enable parents to have much more confidence in the education provided in their area. I say that because most of those measures are at a relatively early stage of development. Although the curriculum has been around in some form for a number of years, only now has it been settled in a form that will be acceptable to all schools. The testing regime will now be available only in its developed form from next year, and it will be some time before its effects are fully felt by all pupils in all schools.

The inspection regime has not yet had a full cycle in all schools, although early indications are that the act of inspection stimulates schools to improve their performance. Even more encouragingly, when schools that have been identified as failing have been given an opportunity to improve, they have responded dramatically and brought about remarkable improvements.

That combination of measures, to say nothing of the publication of results mentioned by my hon. Friend, can give us great confidence that we shall begin to see considerable improvements in schools' performance in future, particularly schools in my hon. Friend's constituency. It is my contention that, despite the fact that my hon. Friend and parents in his constituency feel that schools have let their pupils down, they should now begin

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to feel confident that the combination of measures that I have described will bring about a steady improvement in educational performance, which will make everybody feel much more satisfied. My hon. Friend has had to paint a gloomy picture of schools in his constituency for the House tonight. I hope that the combination of the trouble taken by the head teacher from Filton, the pressure from parents through

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governors on heads and teachers, which will be brought about by their greater knowledge of what is happening in schools, the ability to compare schools and the mechanisms that I have described will give my hon. Friend greater confidence in the future than he has been able to show in educational performance in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Twelve midnight.

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