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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 February 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


London Local Authorities (No. 2) Bill

[Lords] Read a Second time, and committed .

Oral Answers to Questions


School Financing, London

1. Mr. Dowd: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what estimate she has made of the effect on average class sizes in London of the 1995-96 financial settlement for schools.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mrs. Gillian Shephard): London local education authorities will receive an extra £73 million for the 1995-96 settlement. Class sizes will depend on the way in which authorities and schools choose to spend their resources.

Mr. Dowd: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Will she confirm that the severity of the 1995-96 settlement, coupled with the systematic underfunding of the teachers' pay award, is nothing more than a shameful camouflage, by which the Government are attempting to revive interest in their flagging policy of encouraging opt-outs? Will she also confirm that it is a shameful attempt to try to put a few pennies in the bank for tax cuts, which will not work, at the next general election?

Mrs. Shephard: No, I will not confirm any such thing. Next year's settlement must be seen in the context of two years in which there have been generous settlements for local government. The settlement also allows an increase across the board and for education for all authorities. We expect local education authorities, by identifying priorities, by drawing on balances and by making sensible savings in central services, to accommodate the pay settlement.

Dame Angela Rumbold: Will my right hon. Friend comment on the content of a letter that has come into my possession, which is written by the education chairman of my local authority, the London borough of Merton, which is Labour controlled? She asks all her colleagues to unite in an effort to, as she puts it, "stir up aggro" among the governors and parents in the London borough of Merton against the council's "difficulties", so- called, in being able to fund education this year.

Mrs. Shephard: It is a great pity that the chairman of the Merton education committee should so waste her time.

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She would be very much better employed identifying sensible priorities within her education authority so that the children of Merton do not suffer.

Mr. Don Foster: Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in London, there are almost 100,000 primary school pupils in classes of more than 30 and that the figure is set to rise unless more money is made available from the Treasury for the education service? Will she tell the House what endeavours she has made in the past few weeks to obtain more money from the Treasury and with what success?

Mrs. Shephard: I have already explained that London local authorities will receive an extra £73 million for the 1995-96 settlement. We must also remember that over the past five years, the standard spending assessments of London authorities have increased by 25 per cent. above the rate of inflation. London authorities also receive considerably more cash per pupil in their education SSAs than do other authorities. For all those reasons, I see no reason why class sizes should rise in London.

Compulsory Sport

2. Mr. Cyril D. Townsend: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what new initiatives she has to encourage compulsory sport within schools.

Mrs. Gillian Shepherd: The revised national curriculum for physical education places much greater emphasis on team games and competitive sport.

Mr. Townsend: Does my right hon. Friend agree with Sir Roger Bannister that we have become a nation of the contentedly unfit? Does she also agree that an element of compulsion is essential if children are to take sport seriously? What is the Department's policy on teaching cricket in schools, following our dismal and dreary performance down under?

Mrs. Shephard: I am probably one of the discontentedly unfit. My hon. Friend certainly speaks for himself. We think that competitive and team games are a very important part of a balanced PE curriculum. It will perhaps be of some comfort to my hon. Friend to learn that, in future, 14 to 16-year-olds will have to engage in two activities in the PE curriculum, one of which must be a competitive game. No doubt many of them will wish to take cricket.

Mr. Kilfoyle: How does that rhetoric square with the sales of local authority playing fields, which have been forced by the persistent cuts that the Government have made in local authority funding? What does she say also to the Dartford West high school for girls, which has had its playing fields asset-stripped and given to neighbouring grant-maintained schools for their sole use, resulting in the exclusion of 750 young girls in Dartford?

Mrs. Shephard: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is among the ranks of the contentedly unfit.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I was once a PE teacher.

Mrs. Shephard: The hon. Gentlemen claims that he was once a PE teacher. I am glad to hear it. He should therefore know that regulations are in place which define

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the amount of playing fields that schools should have. They cannot be sold if the effect would be to reduce the area below the required minimum.

Mr. Hawkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if children were encouraged to take part in compulsory sport, as Conservative Members believe should be the case, they would take a serious interest in the support of our national teams and not indulge in the kind of mindless violence that we saw so appallingly exhibited in Dublin last week?

Mrs. Shephard: It is to be hoped that that might be so. Certainly, taking part in competitive and team games helps to teach young people to work together as a team, how to co-operate and how to strive towards a common goal.

Student Loans Scheme

3. Mr. Pike: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what proposals she has to make changes in the operation of the student loans scheme.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell): The Government have no current plans tintroduce major changes to the loans scheme, but keep its operation under review.

Mr. Pike: Does the Minister accept that the student loans scheme is seriously flawed and very unfair? Once former students reach the threshold at which they have to begin making repayments, they soon start having to pay £70 a month, when they still have low incomes and increasing commitments. Why will not the Government recognise that the scheme is a waste of time, scrap it and introduce a fairer system?

Mr. Boswell: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is way off beam. The average repayment currently under the Student Loans Company scheme is £14 per month. Nobody need start repayments until his income has attained at least £14,600 per annum. That is a fair provision, which should be acknowledged.

Mr. Pawsey: I hope that my hon. Friend will disregard the ill- informed comments of the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), who clearly knows as much about the student loans scheme as I do about black pudding manufacturing. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the interest-free student loans scheme will remain and that we shall not go down the route of a graduate tax, as some Opposition Members advocate?

Mr. Boswell: I can tell my hon. Friend, who I am sure is a dab hand at making black puddings in his spare time, that we have no plans to charge a commercial rate of interest for student loans, nor have we any plans to impose a graduate tax. I can tell those Opposition Members who hanker after this nostrum to get them out of their intellectual difficulties that the likely rates of tax under those provisions would be sufficient to alarm them and, indeed, students considerably.

Mr. Bryan Davies: Does the Minister not recognise that the Student Loans Company was besieged by student complaints--35,000 before Christmas-- because it could not provide students with the resources they need? What on earth is going on when the assessor, who is meant to

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adjudicate between the company and student complainants, has dealt with three cases only in the past four years, has found in favour of the company on all three occasions and has been paid more than £30, 000 for his pains?

Mr. Boswell: What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the fact that the assessor has been called in on only a limited number of occasions in the past suggests--as our evidence suggests--that the company's performance was satisfactory at its inception. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the fact that the performance last autumn was not satisfactory.

Thanks to hon. Members on both sides of the House, Ministers and students themselves, we said that that was not satisfactory and that the company would have to deal with the situation. It has now done so, and it has also undertaken a full review of the repeat application procedure in which it is involving representatives of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the National Union of Students and others. That shows a responsive organisation which is anxious to help students and not the kind of caricature which the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) has already thoughtfully set out in the press release which I have.

Mr. David Martin: Does my hon. Friend recollect the scare stories that went around when the student loans scheme was introduced? It was said that the scheme would either put off students from poorer backgrounds from applying to university or prevent them staying there. That has not proved to be the case in Portsmouth. Can my hon. Friend give me some information on the national scene?

Mr. Boswell: Yes, I will readily give my hon. Friend that information. It is clear from the student income and expenditure survey which was published a year ago that, for the first time, the proportion of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds exceeded 50 per cent. The existence of the loans scheme and the resources provided make that possible.

High School Graduation

4. Mr. Gunnell: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what survey she has conducted of the results of US research on the effects of the system of high school graduation on the motivation of pupils.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr. Eric Forth): My right hon. Friend has conducted no survey of the results of such US research.

Mr. Gunnell: Given that there remain in our system an unacceptably high number of pupils who leave school without any tangible qualifications, does the Minister not think that there are practical lessons that we might learn from the United States system, which graduates more than 80 per cent. of its pupils from high school and encourages many of them as adults to go back to school part time to complete that qualification?

Mr. Forth: I yield to none in my affection and admiration for most things American, not least Mrs. Forth. However, the implication behind the hon. Gentleman's question is not something that we can all recognise. There are many aspects of the American system that are good, but there are many which are not so good, and that is

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recognised in the United States itself. I would always be prepared to look at, and to learn from, what is good in other countries, but I would be very cautious about jumping to the conclusion that we can somehow transmute that from other countries to our system, to our benefit.

Dr. Hampson: Is my hon. Friend aware that he does not need to consider research in the United States? He simply needs to consider an independent report from the university of Leeds, which showed quite clearly that, in terms of motivation of pupils, the most important aspect was the expectations that teachers had of them. Under the Leeds system, in the primary sector--this is translatable across the country--expectations were far too low. It is now 19 years since a Labour Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, said that there had to be an end to progressive teaching techniques and that we had to serve more the needs of industry and vocational occupations. Despite that recognition, the Labour Government did absolutely nothing about it.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend has put his finger on a very important matter, which has been highlighted time and time again by independent reports, not least recently by Ofsted and Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools. Too often, teachers in schools which are seen to be disadvantaged in some way, or which are in what are regarded as difficult areas, do not have sufficiently high expectations of their pupils and do not make sufficient demands on themselves--the teachers--or on their pupils. If they did, that would be a key to raising performance, expectations, staying-on rates and qualifications of the kind referred to by the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell). My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) is absolutely right.

School Leavers (Skills)

5. Mr. Nicholas Winterton: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what specific steps are being taken to ensure that pupils leaving school have the skills required by manufacturing industry.

Mrs. Gillian Shepherd: The national curriculum and the new vocational qualifications all contribute to providing pupils with the skills necessary for working life.

Mr. Winterton: Does my right hon. Friend agree with John Fraser, currently president of the Chemical Industries Association Ltd. and chairman and chief executive of Ciba plc--an international company with its headquarters in Macclesfield--who states that what manufacturing industry wants is a supply of excellent theoretical and practical scientists, school leavers with a thorough grounding in science and a general public who are scientifically literate and can appreciate the benefits of science rather than being concerned about its mysteries?

Mrs. Shephard: I am interested to hear from my hon. Friend the views of the president of the Chemical Industries Association, a group in which my hon. Friend takes a keen interest. It is important that the needs of manufacturing industry and employers in general should be addressed by the national curriculum. Manufacturing needs will be met principally through design and technology, but also through rigorous standards in science and mathematics. We are also devoting resources to

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developing the use of information technology, which again is of clear relevance. What matters most is that standards should be rigorous.

Mr. Blunkett: Given that industry is dependent on young people being literate and numerate, is this not entirely the wrong moment to be cutting investment in our education service? Will the Secretary of State this afternoon give the House and the country a pledge that, following her statement in Leicestershire last Wednesday, she is prepared to listen to what is happening in schools and colleges and to do what her predecessor-- the present Chancellor of the Exchequer--did three years ago and go to the Cabinet and argue for further investment to meet the teachers' pay increase? Would that not avoid a reduction in standards, a reduction in opportunity and a reduction in the literacy and numeracy which our industry requires for the future?

Mrs. Shephard: Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are not cutting investment in education. As I made clear earlier, next year's settlement allows for an increase across the board. The total of more than £28 billion is a considerable investment in the future of our young people. It is time that the hon. Gentleman stopped scaremongering in this way, and looked at the framework for standards and rigour, which is backed by £28 billion of investment.

Grant-maintained Schools

6. Mr. Peter Atkinson: To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many grant-maintained schools there are in the north of England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): There are 137 grant-maintained schools in the north of England.

Mr. Atkinson: Will my hon. Friend confirm that, out of the 900 schools inspected so far, just 9 per cent. are grant-maintained schools, yet out of the 52 schools identified in the "best improvers" category, 14 were grant-maintained? Does that not show that, above all, the argument is about quality? Is it not a pity that more parents in the north have not had an opportunity to vote on the issue?

Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend has stumbled across an interesting statistic. It is fairly well known that many of our best schools have become self-governing. What is less well known is that many of our most improving schools have also become self-governing, and the figures which my hon. Friend has given clearly underline that point. I would simply add that that will only increase the attraction of those schools to parents-- including, of course, parents who are also Labour party activists.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: The reorganisation in my constituency involves Keswick school. With that in mind, will the Minister tell me whether grant- maintained schools have advantages in being able to raise money for capital projects over and above other similar schools which are not grant- maintained? If they do have advantages, why, in principle, should they?

Mr. Squire: The answer is a little complex. It is not true to say that grant-maintained schools may borrow formally. They can certainly look to outside interests which may be interested in making various arrangements

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with them, as indeed can an LEA school. Of course, an LEA can borrow significantly greater sums. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) would sit quietly for a moment, he might hear something useful. In 1993-94, nearly half of all capital expenditure by local authorities on schools was funded other than by Government-approved borrowing. That is why grant-maintained schools must have access to other forms of funding, including a reasonable capital allocation.

Sixth Forms

7. Mr. Colvin: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the trend in the formation of sixth forms in comprehensive schools; how this compares with the development of sixth form and tertiary colleges; and if she will make a statement.

Mr. Boswell: Schools continue to bring forward proposals for the addition of sixth forms. All such proposals which come before my right hon. Friend are carefully considered on their merits in the light of our published criteria. Sixth form and tertiary colleges continue to thrive.

Mr. Colvin: I acknowledge that the introduction of local management of schools and grant-maintained status have greatly added to choice and diversity in education. Does my hon. Friend agree that comprehensive schools must think carefully before seeking to add sixth forms to their schools, especially when sixth form and tertiary colleges already exist locally and where those have a campus atmosphere more appropriate to sixth form education?

Mr. Boswell: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that comprehensive schools should consider carefully the importance of making such a proposal, which would be judged against our published criteria. Those include whether there is a basic need for new provision and, if not, whether the viability of existing good-quality provision would be adversely affected if the proposal were approved. A school would have to satisfy us on that criterion, among others, before we took a favourable decision.

Mr. Rooker: Does it remain part of the Government's published criteria that, in terms of value for money and educational opportunity, a sixth form should not have fewer than 150 pupils? If so, why have the Secretary of State and her predecessor continued to approve new comprehensive school sixth forms with fewer than 150 pupils, which is bound to damage choice and opportunity for those pupils?

Mr. Boswell: It may be for parents and pupils to determine whether choice and opportunity are removed. The criteria state specifically that the provision should be of sufficient size and quality to deliver a reasonably wide-ranging curriculum, and we consider the inspectorate's observations in deciding on a proposal. So the hon. Gentleman's concerns are not overlooked. However, there is no precise criterion, and we judge each case on its merits.

Mr. Patrick Thompson: Given the popularity and success of the Government's recent reforms affecting further education, will my hon. Friend bear in mind, when

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considering the best way to fund schools in the future, the fact that the funding of further education colleges is transparent while the funding of schools in the secondary sector is not?

Mr. Boswell: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it may interest the House to know that, over the past quinquennium, there were 267, 000 pupils aged 16 to 18 in the maintained sector and 471,000 pupils in FE and sixth form colleges, so the rate of increase in further education has been markedly sharper than in sixth forms.

Discretionary Awards

8. Mr. Hain: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what monitoring she plans to undertake of the discretionary awards system.

Mr. Boswell: Discretionary awards are the responsibility of local authorities. The Department will continue to collect a range of relevant statistical and other data from them.

Mr. Hain: Is not the discretionary award system now an absolute shambles? Legal, dance and drama, music and many other categories of student have no chance whatever of getting a discretionary award because of the Government's cuts in funding. The Minister must not insult the intelligence of the House or of students by pretending that local education authorities can bridge the gap, when he and his Government are savaging local education budgets.

Mr. Boswell: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman feels that his intelligence will be insulted if I invite him to consider the facts. When the Gulbenkian Commission, which is not under Government control, considered that matter, it projected an increase of about 20 per cent. in the total number of discretionary awards between 1990-91 and 1993-94, a 32 per cent. increase in further education courses and an increase in expenditure of 14 per cent. in real terms in the same period. The fact that there is worry about local provision in some local education authorities should not be taken by the hon. Gentleman as an excuse for a diatribe against a system that we continue to fund, and which is not failing.

Mr. Harry Greenway: Does my hon. Friend agree that many local authorities, especially Labour and Liberal Democrat controlled authorities, do not pay proper attention to the discretionary awards system, and that young people miss out as a result in terms of course, career and their future? Will he seek to do something about it?

Mr. Boswell: I do hear what my hon. Friend says and I respect his expertise in that matter. All the local authority associations with whom we have discussed the matter want very much to continue their discretion; the problem is that some of them, wilfully or for whatever reason, choose not to exercise it and thereby deprive young people of the resources that we make available with that purpose in mind.

Class Sizes

9. Mr. Milburn: To ask the Secretary of State for Education if she will make a statement on class sizes in schools.

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Mr Robin Squire: Class sizes are rising slightly, as pupil numbers increase. At the same time many schools are raising pupils' standards of achievement.

Mr. Milburn: Is the Minister aware of the substantial worries of parents, teachers and governors in County Durham schools about the impact of his funding policies on class sizes and on educational standards?

With more than 1 million primary school pupils already being taught in classes of over 30, is not teaching becoming less a means of offering children a valuable learning experience and more a matter of crowd control? What sort of future is that for our children?

Mr. Squire: First, the average class sizes for both primary and secondary schools in Durham are close to the national averages, which are certainly not too high.

Secondly, one might have thought, from listening to the hon. Gentleman's question, that the position in 1979 when the Conservatives came to power was not about 400,000 pupils greater than the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave for those in classes of over 30.

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd: When considering class sizes in Lancashire, does my hon. Friend agree that the behaviour of the local education authority, which puts the interests of maintaining its centralised bureaucracy above that of maintaining or reducing class sizes, will only encourage more parents to consider grant-maintained status?

Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend echoes some of the comments of the Audit Commission about too large bureaucracies in local government, and his argument is a good one. I expect Lancashire education authority, as I do every other education authority, to review all its expenditure and to examine it closely before it considers cutting teachers at the sharp end, and to look more closely at the administrators in county hall.

Accessibility Audit

10. Mr. Corbett: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what progress has been made on the accessibility audit of primary and secondary schools.

Mr. Forth: Local education authorities and the Funding Agency for Schools are required to provide the Secretary of State in May this year with information about the accessibility of schools to pupils in wheelchairs. The Department issued guidance on that exercise on 6 January.

Mr. Corbett: I thank the Minister for that reply. What plans does he have to extend that audit to further and higher education? When all those audits are completed, and they confirm what we know already--that most primary schools, most secondary schools and most colleges of further and higher education are far from accessible to people with disabilities--will his Department make new and extra money available to increase that accessibility?

Mr. Forth: What we want to do first is to consider and assess the results of the first tranche of information, which will be important in setting the scene. I hope that we shall be able to build on that in terms of discovering where we most need to ensure better accessibility.

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the House accept that we cannot and do not necessarily want every school to have wheelchair access. It is a matter of establishing priorities. I believe that a satisfactory mechanism already exists in further and higher education to tackle the problem of access, but we shall constantly look to that sector to bring forward its further proposals. I hope, some time in the near future, to be able to announce a new project to improve accessibility in our schools. There is a lot going on in that area and the survey results will be the first step in a number of successive measures to be taken.

Mr. Congdon: Given that the Spastics Society produced a report showing that many schools could provide accessibility to people with disabilities relatively cheaply, does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time that local education authorities gave accessibility of schools the priority that it so richly deserves?

Mr. Forth: Yes, and the schools themselves must make accessibility a priority. Each school must now have a published policy on its treatment of special educational needs and that, together with the special needs code of practice, makes me believe that we should see a lot of progress in this area which, in the past, has been somewhat neglected by schools and authorities alike.

Spoken and Written English

11. Mr. Brandreth: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what recent representations she has received concerning standards of spoken and written English; and if she will make a statement.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: I regularly receive letters from parents and others concerned about standards of English. I share their concern.

Mr. Brandreth: Does my right hon. Friend recognise that English is the richest and the most versatile of all the living languages, and increasingly the world language of business and commerce? Does she further recognise that employers in my constituency are concerned that young people are coming onto the job market without a sufficient command of written and spoken English? Does she believe that that issue must be addressed not simply in schools and colleges, but by the media and by the employers themselves?

Mrs. Shephard: People are judged by whether they can express themselves clearly and employer organisations constantly say that good communication skills are important for all areas of employment. We must ensure that all pupils are equipped with the skills that they need, and the combination of the revised national curriculum with testing and regular inspection will ensure that that happens.

Ms Glenda Jackson: If the Secretary of State is concerned that the standards of spoken and written English should improve and genuinely believes that individuals are judged on their ability to use the English language well, why has she not waged a stronger defence to prevent the cutting of section 11 funding--a comparatively small amount of the overall education budget--which has shown quite extraordinary returns,

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particularly in inner urban areas, where children who do not have English as a first language have improved their use of our language?

Mrs. Shephard: I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that the use of section 11 funding for the teaching of English--especially when it is a second language--has been extremely effective, particularly in many of our inner cities. That is why I am delighted that the Government announced the doubling of section 11 funding in November.


12. Sir Fergus Montgomery: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what measures she is taking to help schools enforce firm discipline.

Mr. Forth: Last May guidance on pupil behaviour and discipline was sent to all schools, as part of the "Pupils with Problems" pack. The guidance aims to help schools maintain and improve discipline. In September 1994 the Department published an anti-bullying pack to help schools combat bullying.

Sir Fergus Montgomery: Does my hon. Friend admit that there is an awful lot of media hype about schools being out of control and does he agree that the recent report of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools gives the lie to that? Does he agree also that parents have some responsibility for helping to improve discipline in our schools?

Mr. Forth: I am very grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. He is right to point out that all recent impartial reports by the inspectors demonstrate that the standard of behaviour in the majority of our schools is good or very good.

My hon. Friend's other point is equally valid. One of the great difficulties that teachers now face in seeking to exercise discipline in the classroom is that they do not receive sufficient support from the parents. We cannot expect teachers to do everything with regard to disciplining pupils; parents must also play a full role.

Mr. Blunkett: In the light of that reply and given the importance of discipline to a learning environment, what advice would Ministers give to a teacher who manages a class of more than 40 students? Would they give the same advice to the Prime Minister, who cannot manage a class of 22?

Mr. Forth: The list of measures and sanctions available to anyone having difficulty with disciplining a group of people include interruption of break or lunchtime privileges, detention, withholding privileges such as participation in trips, completion of assigned or additional written work and carrying out a useful task. [Interruption.] I hope that anyone involved in bringing discipline to bear will find my list helpful.


13. Mr. Amess: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what action she is taking to combat truancy.

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