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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 March 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Madam Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of Sir James Alexander Kilfedder, Member for North Down. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the hon. Member's family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


Reading Ability

1. Mr. Corbyn: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment she has made of the reading abilities of 10-year-old children in England and Wales.     [13242]

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr. Eric Forth): The chief inspector's annual report for 1993-94 states that seven to 11- year-olds are making satisfactory or better progress in reading in 90 per cent. of schools. We shall have a clear national picture of the reading standards of 11-year-olds as a result of the Government's introduction of tests for the first time this year.

Mr. Corbyn: Is the Minister aware that, on 9 March, an editorial in The Times estimated that poor standards of reading among children coming into and leaving secondary school is costing the country £10 billion a year? Does he recognise that one of the biggest problems is the inability of primary schools to teach six and seven-year-olds good reading skills? Why have the Government abandoned the reading recovery programme and, therefore, cut money available for specialist help, which has proved to be very effective in giving seven-year-olds a well above average reading ability for the investment of a relatively small amount of money and little intensive teaching time?

Mr. Forth: Whether the estimated £200 million to continue this scheme nationwide is a small amount of money I shall leave to the hon. Gentleman to argue with his Front-Bench spokesmen. Indeed, whether he is making a commitment on behalf of his Front-Bench team, I shall leave them to sort out for themselves. The reading recovery scheme is one of many which deal with pupils in that age group who have reading difficulties. It is interesting that, having looked at the scheme, a number of local education authorities have decided to pick it up and to continue it as one of their priorities. That must be the

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right way to proceed rather than us dictating from the centre what local education authorities--or, indeed, schools--should do.

Mr. Evennett: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the national curriculum and the testing of children are helping to raise standards and that the policies of his Department are doing much to improve the calibre of teachers, teaching and standards in the classroom?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he has identified rightly the battery of measures that we now have in place in schools to assist them in ensuring that our young pupils learn to read and to master numbers effectively. The curriculum is the keystone of that, regular objective testing is an important part of it, the independent inspection of schools is a vital element and the publication of school results, now welcomed by the Leader of the Opposition, is another key element. Together, all those measures will produce a steady increase in standards over coming years.

Early Years Learning

2. Mr. Robert Ainsworth: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what proposals she has to increase the provision of early years learning.     [13243]

The Secretary of State for Education (Mrs. Gillian Shephard): We shall be providing new places with new money by the end of this Parliament.

Mr. Ainsworth: Will the Secretary of State clarify exactly what she will be providing and when? Are we not entitled to such clarification, and to a little honesty? We have the Chief Secretary to the Treasury saying that we should introduce vouchers, we have the Prime Minister advocating increases in the number of nursery places and a place for everyone and we have the Secretary of State for Education herself writing to her colleagues saying that LEAs could cut nursery places to fund the underfunded teachers' salary increase. What is the situation?

Mrs. Shephard: Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that my letter to colleagues about local government spending simply pointed out that, in a tough spending round, it is appropriate to question all areas of spending, especially non-statutory areas, when councils are complaining that they cannot meet their statutory obligations. One of the delights of education, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, is that it arouses very strong passions. Pre-school education is no exception. The Chief Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister and I have all made it clear that no option for the delivery mechanism of nursery education has been ruled out and no option has been ruled in. Whatever mechanism is finally chosen, it will place parental choice and quality at its centre and an announcement will be made when we are ready.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the number of primary schools in my constituency that have encouraged nursery provision on the school premises? Indeed, last Friday I attended the opening of the Black Firs playgroup in Congleton. Is she aware of how helpful such arrangements are both to the schools

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and to the relationship between the playgroups and the reception classes? Do they not represent one way of assisting early learning among very young children?

Mrs. Shephard: Yes, the whole sector is characterised by great diversity, with excellent classes in nursery schools, excellent reception classes in primary schools, and very good provision by playgroups and in the independent sector. It is getting all those threads to work together for the advantage of parental choice that is complex, and that takes the time.

Mr. Steinberg: Despite the Secretary of State's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), will she tell the House whether she is in favour of a voucher system for nursery education? Is she aware that today there is a lobby of Parliament by parents, teachers, governors and support staff, who want a fully funded education service on an equal basis that is fair to all children in every school, including nursery provision that is not based on right-wing claptrap?

Mrs. Shephard: I expect that the hon. Gentleman has been playing an important part in the rally organised by the National Union of Teachers this afternoon. Like other hon. Members, I have followed with interest the press reports about Cabinet splits, Ministers under pressure and so on. Like all good fiction, they make a good read, and I look forward keenly to the next instalment. Vouchers are an option as a delivery mechanism; they have their attractions but also their disadvantages.

Mr. Riddick: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to what the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) said, the most effective way to ensure choice and diversity in the provision of pre-school education would indeed be a voucher system, and that such a system would have much support among Conservative Members?

Mrs. Shephard: Vouchers that put cash purchasing power into parents' hands would certainly ensure choice. As I have said, vouchers are an option, and they have both attractions and disadvantages.

Mr. Beith: Has the Secretary of State not confirmed, only a few moments ago, the pessimistic interpretation that everyone in education places upon her letter to her colleagues--that she believes that, in what even she admits is a bad year for education funding, it would be right to abandon the development of nursery education and to cut the programmes that local authorities have put in place for it? What kind of advice is that to give to education authorities?

Mrs. Shephard: I realise that financial realism is not a characteristic of councils run by Liberal Democrats, but, as I have said, it is appropriate to question all areas of spending, especially non- statutory areas, when councils are complaining that they cannot meet their statutory obligations.

Grant-maintained Schools

3. Mr. Pawsey: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what are the financial benefits that come from grant-maintained status.     [13244]

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Mrs. Gillian Shephard: Grant-maintained schools control the whole of their budgets, not just the proportion that would have been delegated by a local education authority. That gives them greater flexibility to spend more money where it really counts--in the classroom.

Mr. Pawsey: I thank my right hon. Friend for that extremely interesting response, which I am sure will be noted by all schools with tight budgets and tight settlements. They may see that reply as representing a way forward. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principal attraction of grant-maintained status is not the added funding that such schools receive but the greater freedom that they enjoy, and the fact that we have cut the cords that secure such schools to local education authorities?

Mrs. Shephard: I know that my hon. Friend is a great enthusiast for grant-maintained schools, as are all my right hon. and hon. Friends--as are many people on the Opposition Front Bench. Grant-maintained schools are indeed good and popular schools that continue to attract keen recruits. One of the strongest reasons for their success, as any head of a GM school will tell us, is their freedom from LEA control, as was made clear last autumn by The Times Educational Supplement survey covering more than 500 GM schools.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Notwithstanding the platitudes of the loony right of the Conservative party, does the Secretary of State recognise that immense damage is being done to the education of the vast majority of our children by preferential funding? How can she justify the situation in South Glamorgan, where two grant-maintained schools have received £4 million of capital funding as opposed to the total of £3 million which is going to 200 LEA schools? Is that not blatant bribery of schools for ideological ends?

Mrs. Shephard: I am disappointed to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not responsible for South Glamorgan, but I can make it clear again that grant-maintained schools will continue to receive extra resources to reflect their extra responsibilities. We shall make sure that they continue to receive also a fair share of locally available resources, despite the best endeavours of hostile local authorities controlled by the Labour party.

Mr. Allason: Does my right hon. Friend accept that one good way for a school to become insulated from the profligacy of local education authority spending is to go grant-maintained? Is she aware that grant- maintained schools in Torbay have been protected from the disgraceful threats of cuts made by Devon county council?

Mrs. Shephard: One of the greatest strengths of grant-maintained schools is their independence from LEA control, and they also have flexibility to manage their own budgets in a tough year.

Ethnic Minorities

4. Mr. Stevenson: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment has been made of the effects on schools of changes in section 11 funding; and if she will make a statement.     [13245]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell): Most of the £30 million recently announced for new

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section 11 projects starting in 1995-96 will benefit schools. Together with continued funding of existing projects, it will support specialist English language teaching for ethnic minority pupils, and so help raise standards generally.

Mr. Stevenson: Is the Minister aware that his response will be greeted with dismay throughout the country? Does he realise that section 11 cuts are having disastrous effects on pupils whose first language is not English? Will the Minister urgently intervene to restore the damaging cuts before further irreparable harm is done to that vital service?

Mr. Boswell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the funding programmes are of great importance both to children and to schools generally, and I pay tribute to the teachers involved in them. The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed the announcement, which amounted to a doubling of new section 11 funding. For example, in the hon. Gentleman's own local education authority of Staffordshire, £191,000 of additional money will be given to support the existing programmes. That pattern will be reflected throughout the country in all areas where there is a major need for that activity.

Mr. Brazier: Does my hon. Friend accept that there are many Conservative Members who do not echo the calls from Opposition parties for more funding for a variety of ethnic programmes at a time when budgets are inevitably tight?

Mr. Boswell: I agree that we must have priorities, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer expressed that when drawing up his Budget decisions. The programmes have value, and they are not the only way in which we support areas of educational difficulty. They must be judged on their merits as part of a balanced programme.

Selective Education

5. Mr. Hinchliffe: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is her policy on selective education.     [13246]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): The Government believe that schools which select pupils byability, or which specialise in particular subjects, have an important part to play in giving parents a choice of schooling for their children.

Mr. Hinchliffe: Is the Minister aware that, as well as the serious budget cuts in various parts of the country, one of the anxieties of those lobbying Parliament today is the reappearance of selection, especially in Tory areas such as Wandsworth? The last thing that I want for my children and for my constituents' children is for them to be written off at the age of 11, as I was under the Tory education policies of the 1950s and 1960s. While selection may be the obvious next step in terms of the Government's policy, will they for once look at the lessons of the past and learn from the experiences of people like myself and thousands of others in the 1950s and 1960s?

Mr. Squire: Unlike the hon. Gentleman and his party, the Government are not bound by dogma or ideology when it comes to selection in schools. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, we believe that it is up to local education

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authorities, controlled schools and, where relevant,

grant-maintained schools to make proposals for selective education if they believe that it meets the demands of parents in their area. If the Labour party showed our commitment to higher standards in schools, it would not attack good schools of proven worth.

Mr. Haselhurst: Will my hon. Friend assure me that he will approach with caution suggestions for changes in admission arrangements where they might have an unbalancing effect on a cluster of grant-maintained schools in a given area?

Mr. Squire: I can reassure my hon. Friend that any proposals on admission changes are considered most carefully by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. That consideration includes the impact that those changes would have on other schools in the area.

Mr. Jamieson: Will the Minister explain to the House why, since 1970, successive Tory Secretaries of State have signed the orders to close most of the grammar schools?

Mr. Squire: I can only say in answer to the hon. Gentleman that those proposals did not come to me. They came to my ministerial predecessors, who will have considered them on precisely the merits of the schools which I implied in answer to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) a moment ago. Labour Members seem unable to grasp the fact that there should be diversity and choice in our education system and that the Government are pledged to defend that choice and diversity.

Surplus Places

6. Mr. Thurnham: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the cost of surplus places in local authority schools; and if she will make a statement.     [13247]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: We estimate that the direct costs of maintaining surplus places in local authority schools is some £225 million. Of course, not all those places are in practice removable.

Mr. Thurnham: Does my right hon. Friend agree that rising pupil numbers may fill some of those spaces, but that that is no excuse for failing to improve teaching standards in unpopular schools or closing them altogether?

Mrs. Shephard: Given that the Audit Commission has pointed out the savings to be made from sensible rationalisation, I hope that all authorities will look carefully at the position in their area. If they make savings, that will obviously enable them to take the measures that my hon. Friend has identified. Nothing could be more important than raising standards.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Does the Secretary of State not realise that the biggest disincentive to local authorities to remove surplus places has come from the Government giving schools the opportunity to opt out of local education authorities? Does she realise that removing surplus places takes at least two years and is certainly no answer to the funding crisis that our schools face now?

Mrs. Shephard: The first point is that high priority is given in capital funding to LEA bids for cost-effective

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rationalisation proposals. The second point relates to GM schools. We do not normally approve proposals for self- governing status drawn up in response to a threat of closure, but we reserve the right to approve GM status for such schools when we are not persuaded by the LEA's case and the school is viable, effective and popular.

Mr. McLoughlin: Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Derbyshire there are more than 17,000 surplus places? Can she confirm that every LEA this year had an increase in the amount of money that it could spend? Therefore, if there is any cash reduction to schools, it is simply because the LEA has changed its priorities.

Mrs. Shephard: Yes, this year's settlement provides for an increase for all authorities. It should be viewed in the context of generous settlements in the past few years and lower than expected inflation. It is certainly the case that if Derbyshire had been prepared to tackle the large number of surplus places in the past, it would not have had the problems that it claims to have now.

Class Sizes

7. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment Her Majesty's Government have made of the links between class sizes and pupil attainment.     [13248]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: The accumulated research evidence has not demonstrated any conclusive link between marginal changes in class size and pupil attainment. What matters most is the quality of teaching provided.

Mr. Hughes: Does the Secretary of State accept that 1 million primary school pupils are now in classes of over 30; that the size of primary school classes has increased by 20 per cent. over the past two years; and that this year's settlement will result in further increases in class sizes next year? Will she therefore come clean over Government policy? Do they favour smaller classes, as set out in their 1983 and 1987 manifestos; are they neutral about smaller classes, as they showed by saying nothing about them in their last manifesto; or do they now argue that class size increases make no difference? If the Government think that class sizes make no difference, I presume that their education policy is like their taxation policy, on which they argue one thing but are so incompetent that they produce exactly the opposite result.

Mrs. Shephard: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I expect that he is overjoyed that Southwark will spend an extra £8 million on schools this year. He must be delighted by the Government's generosity in making that possible. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sorry but I have asked hon. Members to be careful when entering the Chamber when a Minister is responding to an hon. Member.

Mrs. Shephard: It is worth while for the hon. Gentleman to note that, while class sizes have edged up recently, standards have improved steadily at all levels at the same time. Moreover, Ofsted reports have made no suggestion that class sizes are too large, and there is clear professional advice that teaching quality and leadership, to which we are committed, are the key factors.

Sir Malcolm Thornton: Will my right hon. Friend add to those qualities classroom organisation and preparation?

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Will she reiterate the point that the evidence on class sizes is ambiguous and that, as in the recent past, examples in the former ILEA showed clearly that the linkage between resources and attainment was far from conclusive?

Mrs. Shephard: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is no conclusive linkage between resources and attainment. He is also right that teacher competence is the most important factor, which is why I am extremely pleased that we have been able to devote £250,000 to school effectiveness, in-service training, and grants for education, support and training programmes to achieve that competence.

Mr. Blunkett: Does the Secretary of State believe the head of the private girls' high school in Sheffield who said on local radio recently that the three major reasons why her school was so successful were that she could choose her own pupils, she did not have to follow the national curriculum, and her class sizes were half those of neighbouring state schools? Who does the Secretary of State believe this afternoon: those who are lobbying as parents, governors and teachers, including the heads of private schools, who say that class sizes are crucial; or those around her who believe that the cuts in education imposed in the coming year will have no effect on standards and opportunities?

Mrs. Shephard: The vast majority of pupils are taught in classes of 30 and below. The average size of classes in the primary sector is under 27 and, in the secondary sector, just over 21. One of the reasons why people choose the independent sector for their children is that, like Conservative Members, they value choice and diversity. So, too, do many of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues, including the hon. Members for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) and for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). Perhaps he should ask them for their reasons. I am sure that they would be happy to explain.

Grant-maintained Schools, Hendon

8. Mr. John Marshall: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the number of applicants to Hendon grant-maintained schools for September 1995.     [13249]

Mr. Robin Squire: The Department does not collect data on applications for places at individual schools, including Hendon grant- maintained school; but I would expect that, like GM schools generally, the three in Hendon are increasingly popular with parents.

Mr. Marshall: Is my hon. Friend aware that Hendon school was the first grant-maintained school in London and that, since then, it has been transformed from being under-subscribed to being heavily over-subscribed? Is he aware that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) visited the school, a teacher came up to him and said that she was a member of the Labour party but that the best thing that had happened to the school was its becoming grant-maintained? Does he believe that that school would be good enough for the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)?

Mr. Squire: My hon. Friend makes his point unmistakably. I am delighted to join him in congratulating the school in being a pathfinder and to tell him that not

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only are 1,034 other schools now grant- maintained, but, in under two weeks, they will be joined by another batch of schools which will be free from LEA control.

As my hon. Friend says, a growing number of schools that are becoming grant -maintained continues to contain governors who are strong supporters of other political parties. I assume that they, having seen the evidence of their eyes, will go out and convert the Opposition parties so that they also become aware of the advantages of grant-maintained status.

Exam Courses

9. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what proportion of GCSE and A-level courses can currently be undertaken on a modular basis; and if she will make a statement.     [13250]

Mr. Boswell: This information is not collected by the Department. We understand from the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority that 8 per cent. of national curriculum GCSE and 5 per cent. of GCE A and AS approved courses are modular.

Mr. Greenway: Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many roads to heaven, and that provided--

Mr. Skinner: I go where angels fear to tread.

Mr. Greenway: Do not forget it!

Does my hon. Friend agree that, provided that standards are high, modular courses at GCSE and A-level are as valid as A-levels where standards are equal? Does he accept that some pupils perform better on a modular-based course than on a course leading to an examination on a one-day basis?

Mr. Boswell: I can readily agree with my hon. Friend that there are many ways to heaven and, further, that many pupils may benefit--at least, teachers tell me so--from the adoption of modular courses. The essential matter is that there should be some safeguard against accidentally straying on to the primrose path; that is provided by the SCAA code of practice and guidelines, which bear equally on modular and non-modular A-level courses.

Mr. Bryan Davies: Is the Minister aware that his former permanent secretary will make the case on television this evening that the present A- level structure is too narrowly conceived and offers limited opportunity to more than half our children? Why is it that, when the Confederation of British Industry, the National Commission on Education and the teacher unions and associations demand reform of the post-16 examination position-- when there is that consensus in arguing for reform of the A-level system-- the Government alone resist?

Mr. Boswell: The Government are determined to maintain standards and excellence. Sir Geoffrey Holland was a most distinguished public servant. He is a highly distinguished vice-chancellor, with whom I have always enjoyed excellent personal relations and whose opinions I shall consider with the greatest attention and interest.

Schools, Barnet

10. Mr. Booth: To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many school places are provided in the borough of Barnet; and how many children are attending schools there.     [13251]

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Mr. Robin Squire: The number of pupils attending maintained secondary schools in Barnet is 18,790 and information provided by Barnet LEA and the Funding Agency for Schools shows that for 1994, there was a total of 20,268 places.

Similarly, there are 22,048 pupils attending maintained primary schools with places for 22,212. The latter figure excludes GM primary schools, for which such information is not collected centrally, but where I understand that 854 places were being provided when the schools became GM.

Mr. Booth: Will my hon. Friend publicly recognise and congratulate the outstanding, second-to-none performance of the pupils of Finchley and Barnet, supported as it is by partnership between admirable parents and, until last year at any rate, a Tory council?

Mr. Squire: I willingly join my hon. Friend in congratulating the schools in Barnet, whose results compare favourably with other LEAs. Barnet is in the top five LEAs in respect of the percentage of pupils achieving at least five GCSE grades A star to C, and in the top 25 LEAs in respect of GCSE A and AS-level achievements. By any standards, those are excellent results.

Teachers (Hours Worked)

11. Mr. Butler: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the average number of hours worked (a) per day and (b) per week by classroom teachers in (i) primary and (ii) secondary schools during term- time.     [13252]

Mr. Forth: The work load survey, based on teachers' own returns and carried out for the School Teachers Review Body, showed that the average total hours worked by full-time classroom teachers during a term time week in March 1994 was 48.8 hours for primary teachers and 48.9 hours for secondary teachers. Data are not available on a daily basis.

Mr. Butler: Does my hon. Friend agree that those figures show, yet again, just how hard teachers work and fully justify the Government's decision to increase their salaries by just short of 40 per cent. in the past five years and to allow in full this year's pay recommendation? Does he share my regret that parents, teachers and governors have been forced to lobby Parliament today because local education authorities continue to spend on discretionary and politically correct measures rather than fund properly, with the money that they have available, the full teachers' pay settlement?

Mr. Forth: I am glad to join my hon. Friend in praising good teaching by good teachers. I agree that to concentrate simply on the number of hours worked reveals only part of the picture: it is the effectiveness of those hours which matters. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct about LEA spending. It is interesting that a number of LEAs have been able to order their priorities in such a way that they have been able to meet the teachers' pay rise in full and to continue to provide well for their pupils and schools. If all authorities approached funding in that manner, we would not have to witness the artificial hysteria that has been generated in some quarters.

Mr. Battle: Is not the truth that teachers have been totally demoralised as a direct result of 17 years of the

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Government's education policy? Today's lobby of Parliament, which has brought together teachers, governors and concerned parents, should be listened to by the Government, because they are withdrawing capital funds from local authorities to repair schools and they are undermining those authorities' ability to pay the wage bill. Why are the Government shuffling off their responsibilities, as usual?

Mr. Forth: I am slightly surprised by the hon. Gentleman's assertions for two principal reasons. First, it is certainly true that teachers' worth has been recognised in the pay increases that they have received under this Government, under whom they have done extremely well-- and rightly so, I believe. Average teachers' pay, after 1 April 1995, will be £22,200 per annum. That amply rewards the contribution that they are able to make.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second assertion that the pay awards cannot be met, he obviously did not listen to my earlier reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler), in which I pointed out that a number of authorities, including many controlled by the Labour party, have found it possible to fund the teachers' pay award in full. I welcome that.

Grant-maintained Schools

12. Mr. David Evans: To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many schools have applied for grant-maintained status.     [13253]

Mr. Robin Squire: To date, 1,157 schools have published proposals to acquire grant-maintained status. A further 15 schools are currently under a duty to publish such proposals following "yes" votes in parental ballots.

Mr. Evans: I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he a member of the Transport and General Workers Union? Does he agree with me that if the 1 million members of the TGWU had gone to grant-maintained schools, preferably the Oratory, they might have been prepared to support Bambi, the leader of that lot on the Opposition Benches, in rewriting clause IV?

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