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Mrs. Shephard: I should like to make a little progress. I am grateful for the level-headedness of councillors, governors and teachers who are working out manageable responses to the settlement and maximising the use of resources to secure the best possible education for their pupils.
Mr. Blunkett: The Secretary of State mentioned Buckinghamshire and praised Conservatives in local government for doing such a good job, thus equating Buckinghamshire with an absence of problems. Why, then, did her hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler) send one of his constituents a
Column 1045version of the standard letter issued by the Department for Education and Conservative central office attacking Labour authorities, which attacked Tory-controlled Buckinghamshire county council for doing all the things that the right hon. Lady has just attacked Labour county councils for doing?
Mrs. Shephard: To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he missed my passing reference--and congratulations--to Birmingham city council, which I believe is Labour-controlled. I also mentioned the Liberal Democrats in connection with Cheshire. As for my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler), his correspondence is his own affair. Indeed, he may be in the House to speak for himself.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Buckinghamshire county council over-provided for the teachers' pay award and was thus able to fund it in full? Moreover, because of its prudent financial management over many years, the council has been able to make a substantial contribution from its balance to protect its education budget.
Although tough, this year's settlement is manageable, as many authorities are proving. The Government are committed to implementing review body recommendations in full unless there are clear and compelling reasons to the contrary. We think that there are no such reasons this year, and I am announcing this afternoon our conclusion that it would be right to implement the teachers' pay recommendation in full: teachers deserve no less.
I began by describing the speech of the hon. Member for Brightside as predictable. It was; but he was less predictable when he chose to extol standards and opportunity. In fact, it was difficult to believe what we were hearing from a party that had opposed those principles at every turn for the past 16 years.
I am delighted to talk about standards and opportunity, because Conservative Members know a good deal about them. Let us start with the action that we have taken--as opposed to mere chatter--in regard to standards and opportunity in education. When we came to office in 1979, we were faced with an education system that was based on inputs and took no account of outputs. This afternoon, the hon. Member for Brightside has demonstrated yet again that Labour is happy for taxpayers' money to be spent and is not interested in what it buys. In 1979, there was no measure for what children should learn in schools; but a basic curriculum is central to the raising of standards. We therefore established such a curriculum, which laid proper emphasis on the basics of literacy and numeracy and provided a broad and balanced programme for all pupils aged between five and 16. To ensure that all that is working, we have introduced a framework of tests and assessment.
The Office of Standards in Education--Ofsted--reports that the national curriculum, which, sadly, was mindlessly opposed by Opposition Members, is already improving the teaching of mathematics, and that primary science can be counted a major success. Those improvements will continue. We can also applaud the steady improvement in GCSE results in recent years.
Column 1046why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday appeared to close the door on the new educational opportunity offered by the entry of Manchester grammar school into the state sector? I hope that she will not mention the assisted places scheme; there is all the difference in the world between doling out the odd scholarship in a lordly fashion and opening the best schools in the country to the best and brightest brains.
Mrs. Shephard: The proposals for Manchester grammar school are extremely interesting and I know that my hon. Friend has does an enormous amount of work on the interface between the maintained and independent sectors. My hon. Friend has discovered and expressed many interesting viewpoints. I take this opportunity publicly to invite him to tea, to talk to me about them. [Interruption.] A number of ribald suggestions are coming from the Opposition Benches. I can only say that hon. Members are becoming over-excited.
We applaud the steady improvement in GCSE results in recent years. In 1989, just under 33 per cent. of 15-year olds gained five or more GCSEs at grade C or above. By 1994, the proportion had increased to more than 43 per cent. Those results and the record of all schools in achieving them are clear for all to see in our national performance tables, which we understand Labour Members now support. That is a good thing, because the tables also show performance in another vital area--truancy.
I was delighted that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) condemned truancy the other day, yet it is curious that he and his party voted against all our measures to combat and to record truancy. They talk now about standards with all the zeal of the recent convert, yet for 16 years all our moves to raise standards were met with unremitting opposition from Labour.
Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): The Secretary of State talks about standards and opportunities. Nearly every school in my constituency faces cuts in teaching staff. I have met head teachers, and they blame not the authority but the Secretary of State for failing to fund the teachers' pay increase. How will those cuts improve standards and opportunities in my constituency?
Mrs. Shephard: I have given examples of authorities which are managing perfectly well with this year's settlement, even though it is tough. I advise the hon. Gentleman to take lessons from the examples that I gave.
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre): The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) suggested that the SSA for Durham for the coming year will be less than for the current year. I checked the figures with the Library. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that Durham's SSA for the coming year will be in excess of that for the current year? Despite the fact that the hon. Member for Durham, North-West is a member of the shadow Treasury team, she got her figures wrong. She failed to take into account the children in Durham who are educated outside her county.
Independent inspection is crucial to raising standards. The Opposition seem to prefer a system in which primary schools could expect such an inspection once every 200 years and secondary schools once every 50 years, but we would not accept that. Our new inspection system provides
Column 1047schools with a systematic and regular assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. With that diagnosis, schools can set clear targets for improvement.
Overall, inspection is indicating good standards across the system, but it is also confirming that a minority of schools have serious weaknesses or are failing. Where standards are unacceptably low, we will intervene. Our powers to do so have galvanised LEAs into action to improve their weakest schools. Most schools are making good progress while others are moving towards closure. Either way, pupils can look forward to better education. The policy is working. The key to higher standards is good teaching, which is why we established the Teacher Training Agency. On Monday, I attended the launch of its first corporate plan--an impressive catalogue of activities, all designed to raise standards. The purpose of the agency is to improve the quality of teaching and of teacher education and training, in order to improve pupils' achievement and the quality of their learning.
Who could oppose a body with such a purpose? Who could oppose bringing together activities previously scattered among various agencies and Departments?
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) rose --
Mr. Benn: Is the right hon. Lady aware that thousands of people have come down from Derbyshire today, and that tens of thousands have signed a petition, because all the words that she has used about higher standards stick in their gullets? Teachers, especially experienced teachers, are to be sacked; class sizes are to rise; school buildings are in disrepair. One of the greatest causes of their resentment is the fact that she does not reply to letters written to her by governors, parents and teachers. The information that she has given the House today is wholly misleading in respect of many local education authorities.
Mrs. Shephard: I must tell the right hon. Gentleman what I told my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) earlier. If the county council is in such financial straits, I do not understand how it has managed to provide supply cover to enable so many teachers to attend today's demonstration. That seems an extraordinary way of identifying priorities. If it is true that schools have been closed, it becomes even more extraordinary. Mr. Skinner rose --
Column 1048able to come and lobby their Members of Parliament and bring them petitions, as you will agree. By and large schools have difficulties--
Mr. Skinner rose --
Mr. Den Dover (Chorley): We are trying to improve standards in a difficult year for budget settlements. As we are the party of choice, does my right hon. Friend agree that the only realistic option is to open up the grant-maintained sector? Is it not appalling that only one school in Chorley has gone for GM status? Is not GM status the only way to ensure extra expenditure on schools--and extra capital expenditure on them?
Mrs. Shephard: Yes. It is a pity that the Opposition motion, which concerns opportunity, does not mention choice or diversity. Perhaps that is not surprising, for the Labour party has opposed choice and diversity at every turn: grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, and even the Education Act 1980, which introduced parental choice in the maintained sector. Nothing has done more to establish choice and diversity than GM schools.
When we came to power, LEAs had a monopoly of state schooling and detailed control of schools. We have given more autonomy to all schools, and we have given parents a central role in determining how much autonomy schools should have.
Parents have the right to decide whether their child's school should become self-governing. Well over 1,000 schools have made the choice to go GM, and the number continues to grow. I hope that the numbers are growing in my right hon. Friend's constituency.
Dame Angela Rumbold: It seems to me that GM schools offer not only choice but the chance for governing bodies, without commitment, to do the arithmetic and work out the difference that it might make to them if they opted out of LEA control and became grant-maintained. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be interesting for schools to undertake those sums?
Mrs. Shephard: I do. Many schools are doing exactly that at the moment. They will also take into account the fact that, on average, GM schools perform better than their LEA counterparts. The primary schools have better test scores at key stage one. The comprehensive schools have better GCSE results and less truancy. Not surprisingly, therefore, GM schools are popular with parents--including a number of parents who sit on the Opposition Benches.
Column 1049What a pity it is that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield--an apparent convert to GM--has so little influence over his own Labour town halls. The behaviour of many of them towards schools seeking to become GM, and to GM schools themselves, has been disgraceful. Let us take one or two examples from across the country, ranging from deliberate attempts to terrorise to acts of petty spite. Birmingham city council waged a campaign of discrimination against the pupils and staff of Baverstock grant-maintained school. Pupils were banned from libraries during school hours and were not allowed to borrow books for school projects. The school was not allowed to use council football pitches, and pupils were unable to use the local swimming pool.
In April 1994, the Lib-Lab pact which controls Avon county council produced a guidance document clearly designed to intimidate schools considering the GM option, as the following sentences demonstrate: "A Grant-Maintained ballot unleashes deep divisions within parent groups and within communities . . . the experience of a ballot is a very unpleasant one for the Governing body, the staff and some of the parents".
But what price Labour town halls, when the right hon. Member for Sedgefield seems unable to convert his own education spokesman? The hon. Member for Brightside has stated his opposition to GM schools up and down the land and also quite clearly in the House. Speaking to GM heads last week he made soothing noises, talking about
"flexible partnerships for GMs with their local community", and saying:
"coherence in the configuration of services is also a key process in which all schools should participate".
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to explain to the more than 1 million GM parents, not to mention their governors, heads, teachers and children, exactly what those phrases mean. Would he like to tell the House? Can he, as I asked him in a letter last week, give GM pupils, parents and teachers an assurance that he has no intention of changing or interfering with the freedoms, choice and diversity for which these parents have voted?
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Some of us are acutely aware of the movements of the Clerk of the House. I noticed just now that he turned to you to suggest that the right hon. Lady might be out of order. Will you consider what he said? We believe that she is.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I never comment on any advice that I may receive from Clerks. In any case, if the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister, he will find it couched in such wide terms that what the Secretary of State is saying is in order.
Mrs. Shephard: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand why this may be rather a sensitive subject for the Opposition. I spoke of a letter that I wrote to the hon. Member for Brightside last week. I hope that he will give the House an answer to it. Many of his colleagues, including the right hon. Member for Sedgefield, are awaiting it eagerly, because the education of their own children is at stake.
Column 1050hon. Lady's letter to her Cabinet colleagues. We give this pledge: every child and every school will be treated equitably and fairly and will be given the same investment to lift standards and opportunities for 100 per cent. of our children, not just 7 per cent. of them.
Mrs. Shephard: Dearie me, those are very soothing words, and I do not think that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield will like that too much. Of course Labour Members do not like grant-maintained schools, because those schools manage their own affairs and control their total budgets. They escape from the iron grip of
Labour-controlled town halls.
Mr. Marland: Did my right hon. Friend hear the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in the same way as I did? He gave an assurance that all schools would be treated in exactly the same way. Does that mean that they will all be dealt with directly by a Labour Government and that they will completely sideline all the local authorities, because that is how I interpret it--no local democracy, no local influence, the whole thing controlled by the hon. Gentleman?
Mrs. Shephard: No doubt the hon. Member for Brightside will make his case with the right hon. Member for Sedgefield some time this evening. Whatever he meant, he meant the end of grant-maintained schools, that is for sure.
The Government have an outstanding record of achievement in education. The reforms have established a new framework for education that raises standards and extends opportunity, choice, diversity and achievement. What has the Opposition's contribution been to all that? It has been opposition all the way. No one can deny it; it is clearly chronicled in their voting record.
They have voted against every measure to raise standards and increase opportunity; against every measure to increase choice in the maintained sector; against the assisted places scheme; against the introduction of more parent-governors; against the national curriculum and assessment tests; against GM schools and city technology colleges; against the establishment of Ofsted and the new inspection regime; against the establishment of a higher education funding council; and against the establishment of the Teacher Training Agency.
With that record, how dare the Opposition lecture us about standards and opportunity? How dare they pose as the guardians of opportunity--they who would deny to others the very choices that they seize eagerly for their own children?
It is the Conservative Government who have ensured that we have higher standards and greater opportunities throughout our educational system than ever before. The Government have given the young people of Britain wider choice and greater opportunity and thrown open the doors to a better education and training that is more sound. That is a record of which we are proud, and it is a record that we intend to maintain and enhance.
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The Government have failed to deliver high-quality education in all our schools, and that is one of the devastating failures of the past 16 years of Tory party misrule.
The Government's over-prescription of the national curriculum, their failure to deliver on teachers' concerns over the way in which they conduct the standard attainment test and their interference in the GCSE examination have impeded, not promoted, the process of improving the standards that are achieved by our pupils in state schools. The Government's blind promotion of grant-maintained schools owes much more to political ideology of selection than it does to choice.
In its leader of 27 April 1992, The Times said:
"To pretend that the selective opted out structure emerging as Government policy has anything to do with parental choice is a deception."
Those are powerful words. What they say has been underpinned by a concerted attack on the professionalism of teachers, as evidenced in the recent unhelpful comments by the Secretary of State for Education, who commented on what goes on in classrooms throughout the country. The debate also takes place against a backdrop of remorseless and systematic education spending cuts. What brings today's debate sharply into focus is the united protest of parents, teachers and governors across the country. Thousands upon thousands of ordinary people, united in their commitment to fight for the best possible education for their children, have been spontaneously thrust into action by the Government's mindless refusal to fund in full this year's modest teachers pay award. That act in itself says a great deal about how hopelessly out of touch the Government have become. The Government stand idly by while bosses in the privatised utilities award themselves massive pay raises, paid for out of the pockets of water, gas and electricity users, yet when it comes to the teachers' pay award, the Government agree that the increase is justified but meanly refuse to pay for it. Those actions have left thousands of governors with the atrocious task of sacking teachers and/or increasing class sizes. The Government do not care, because they believe that increasing class sizes does not in itself affect standards. What utter nonsense.
Faced with that choice--requiring almost a judgment of Solomon--school governors have protested loud and clear about the act of educational vandalism perpetrated by the Government. School governors are the same governors whom the Government claim to have liberated, empowered and given a voice to. Is it not ironic that, when those governors speak out in one voice to condemn the Government's actions over the refusal to fund in full the teachers' pay award, the so-called self-styled liberators--the Government--ignore their views? So much for the Government's rhetoric about giving parents and governors more say in education.
The Government are only the fickle friend of parent power. In response to the protest, we have seen the ignominious retreat of the Secretary of State for Education. At first she recognised that up to 10,000
Column 1052teachers would be made redundant and that class sizes would shoot up as a result of the Government's failure to fund in full the teachers' pay award. She now says, however, that the pay award can be funded out of unpaid poll tax and the removal of surplus places. In other words, she is suggesting that local education authorities can fund the pay award with money that they do not have. She is engaged in fantasy politics, and she knows it.
Shire county LEAs are not responsible for collecting poll tax or council tax arrears, yet the Secretary of State suggests that teachers' pay should be partly funded out of the collection of those arrears. She cannot be serious in her suggestion that teachers' monthly salary pay cheques should become dependent on whether a district council has recovered sufficient poll tax arrears to meet the salary bill.
Likewise, on the issue of surplus places, the savings suggested by the Secretary of State are illusory, in that every time an LEA attempts to close a school because of over-capacity, that school applies to become grant-maintained and thus frustrates the efforts of the LEA to rationalise education places. If any proof is needed of that, all one has to do is look at Bankfield high school, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes). It was faced with closure. It applied to opt out and was granted grant-maintained status by the Secretary of State. In response to the avalanche of criticism by school governors, the Prime Minister, at Question Time last Tuesday, said:
"Of course we recognised from the outset that this year's settlement is tough in education."
He should have said that the Tory party's approach is tough on education. He went on to say:
"If any local authority is thinking of cutting the number of teachers in the classroom, I would ask it what savings it had made in non-teaching aspects of education."--[ Official Report , 21 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 140.]
That patronising nonsense beggars belief after 16 years of education cuts perpetrated by the Tories.
My own LEA--it was mentioned by the Secretary of State--Cheshire county council, which is Tory-Liberal Democrat controlled, is at the bottom of the league in spending per pupil. Cheshire county council spends only £1,321 per nursery and primary school place. The average is £1,580. Suffolk, which is at the top of the league, spends £1,944. On secondary school places, the position is similar. Cheshire spends only £2,072, when the average is £2,260. Cleveland, at the top of the league, spends £2,515.
At the time of the 1995-96 revenue support grant settlement, Michael Pitt, chief executive of Cheshire county council, wrote to me to say that his authority's administration costs are very low, that class sizes are higher and that its pupil-teacher ratios are far worse than the average. Yet the Secretary of State holds that up as an example of a good education authority. Of course, Michael Pitt is right. In 1994, Cheshire had 19.1 pupils per teacher and was the fourth worst in England. The 1995 figure shows that the ratio has worsened. In Warrington, there are 19.8 pupils per teacher, and in Halton Vale Royal, there are 19.4 pupils per teacher. The Secretary of State quoted that as a good example of providing education. Of course, that was before the decision on the revenue support grant and the Government's refusal to fund fully the teachers' pay award.
Column 1053Cheshire county council's SSA for 1995-96 has been cut by 3.3 per cent. in real terms, and its revenue support grant has been cut by 0.8 per cent. in real terms. That, together with the £8 million cost of fully funding the teachers' award, has placed severe pressures on the education budget.
To balance its books, Cheshire county council has cut £1.6 million from its client services. That means cutting the number of free school meals and increasing the cost of school meals that are paid for. It has cut £90,000 from its education support services, £290,000 from continuing education and youth and community provision and £113, 000 from inspection. The Secretary of State says that inspection is one of the ways to improve standards in our schools, but an authority that she congratulates has cut £113,000 from its inspection budget. Worst of all, Cheshire county council made a cut of £3 million from student awards in this financial year, and it plans to cut them by £3 million in the next financial year. That means that no discretionary grants or support will be given to adults who wish to return to education. That cut alone hits standards and colleges alike. Warrington collegiate institute is set to lose £300,000 as a result, and adults who return to education will have to fund their own courses or forgo the option of enhancing their qualifications. The loss of discretionary awards hits working-class students hardest, and they are the very people who need to return to education. Unfortunately, Cheshire county council did not stop there. It cut £575,000 from the primary schools budget, £1.5 million from the secondary schools budget and £440,000 from special education needs. However, the authority was still left with the problem of finding £8 million to fund fully the pay award for its teachers. If the Government had fully funded that award, Cheshire county council could have used the money to bring it from the bottom of the educational ladder on spending per pupil. It could have spent more on improving its poor pupil- teacher ratio in Halton, Warrington and elsewhere in its area.
The money could have been spent on establishing a junior school unit for hearing-impaired pupils at the Brow school in Runcorn. Much-needed extra resources could have been given to the learning support service in Warrington or to a multi-sensory impairment unit similar to the excellent facilities that are provided at the Russett school in Weaverham. It could have provided a much-needed unit in primary schools for partially sighted pupils.
It is clear that the Government have misjudged the mood of the nation on this issue and have ignored the harmful effects of these cuts on our education. They need to rethink their strategy--
Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North): The first matter that I should like to place on the record is that, since 1979, there has been a huge increase in Government expenditure on education. There are 50 per cent. more sixth formers than when we came to power, and the number of pupils moving to higher education is now one in three compared with one in eight. That is a 150 per cent. increase. All that
Column 1054has had to be funded, so there is no doubt that we have put vast sums into education. The Secretary of State mentioned that. A comparison with other countries of the percentage that Britain spends on education will often show to our advantage. On the figures that I have seen, the comparisons with Germany, France and Japan are credible. However, no matter how much more money we have put in and how many more students there are at every level, what matters is the quality of teachers, the commitment of parents and the syllabus. On those three issues over the past 16 years, the Government have done a great deal in every way.
We installed a basic curriculum when we came to power in 1979 and I was privileged to be an Education Minister for four years. A headlong comprehensive reorganisation was jittering to a stop and the far left had encouraged do-it-yourself education in schools instead of real teaching, which means seating people at desks and teaching them with real teachers instead of joyriders.
As I have said, we introduced the basic curriculum. For a time it was too complicated, and I accept that for a while it was oppressive. But that was a trial period, and now there is a good curriculum in primary and secondary schools and testing at the ages of seven, 11 and 14. That is as it should be.
I make no apology for the introduction of league tables. There is a premium football league and there should also be a premium educational league because education is a necessity. In 1979, there was no parental choice and local authorities could increase or decrease the size of schools just as they wanted.
Sir Rhodes Boyson: I agree with my hon. Friend. Parents were not given the privilege of knowing the curriculum and there was no parental choice. We changed all that. In the past 16 years, the Government have done very well for education. All the changes that we have made to improve education have been opposed by the Labour party.
Sir Rhodes Boyson: I had forgotten that the Liberals still exist. They also opposed the changes. The Opposition opposed every Second Reading- -when I checked yesterday I found that only one Third Reading was unopposed. We introduced the curriculum and parental choice, but they preferred parents to be blindfolded and having to go where they were sent, like a conscript army.
Apparently, the Labour party now agrees with us on most matters, which is rather a compliment. However, it does not agree that reverse discrimination in education--the assisted places scheme--has worked. Some 34,000 children from some of the poorest homes in the country are in our best schools. The party that talks about reverse discrimination turned against the only good reverse discrimination ever carried out in education.
I am concerned about three issues, the first of which is the destruction of playing fields and the consequent lack of sporting facilities. Today, I asked for a list of school and other playing fields that have been lost in my constituency over the 21 years that I have been there. The Government should direct that no playing field should be
Column 1055taken out of action from now on unless there is Government approval. There is no point in talking about sport if there are no facilities for it.
Secondly, I am concerned to maintain the standards of A-level and degree courses. No deterioration should arise from the fact that more people are sitting for those examinations, as that would put at risk the severity of the examinations. Thirdly, I am concerned to see the return of morning school assemblies because they bring the people in a school together. Such an assembly has a moral and a disciplinary place in a school and if the headmaster cannot keep 1,200 pupils in order at assembly, he cannot expect his staff to keep them in order in the classrooms. I sometimes suspect that assemblies are not held because of the fear of bad behaviour.
I should like to deal with another matter on which I think I might have the support of the whole House. That would be a surprise and a privilege, and I shall give my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who was also a teacher, a drink if I manage to do it. I do not think that we realise that the power in education has changed. In the beginning, the political parties organised it nationally and locally and there were agreements about setting up governing bodies. That has gone, and one of the problems facing the Government is that the power has passed to parents and teachers.