Previous Section Home Page

Sir Rhodes Boyson: There is nothing wrong with that. My hon. Friend is cross-examining me. I will have a word with him, too. He will not get a drink afterwards. The battles will now be fought with parents and teachers, not with the local authorities of old. Let me end my speech as I know that a time limit has been imposed.

Mr. Marland: My right hon. Friend has three minutes.

Sir Rhodes Boyson: I have three minutes, so I can move a little more slowly, even start again or ask which parts of my speech I should expand on.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North): Will my right hon. Friend give way so that I can help him along?

Sir Rhodes Boyson: No, I shall not give way. My hon. Friend and I are speaking in a debate on Friday. He is giving an introduction for me. I have changed my mind. I shall give way to him.

Mr. Carlisle: I promise to say nice things about my right hon. Friend on Friday. Does he agree that corporal punishment is another old- fashioned principle to which we should return?

Sir Rhodes Boyson: I would vote for that tomorrow. Capital and corporal punishment is coming back around the world, including in America. Eventually, it will come back here. We shall all have to have a drink together on the day that that happens.

In 1987, a MORI poll was conducted on whether parents were satisfied with their children's education. It showed that 74 per cent. of parents were satisfied. The 1994 MORI poll showed that 83 per cent. were satisfied. The Government have poured money into education because of the extension in the number of people staying

Column 1056

on longer. Secondly, we have tightened education up through the national curriculum, parental choice and all those changes, against the wishes of the Labour party, which is so unqualified to go into government. Thirdly, we have to watch out that that vast expansion does not mean a lowering of standards. Apart from that, I have full confidence in the Government on education.

5.31 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): It is always difficult to follow the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson). His ideas are often interesting and provocative but, sadly, wrong.

As the House will know, I act as an adviser to two teacher unions. I suspect that they will be slightly surprised to hear my opening remarks. I should like to pay a compliment to the Secretary of State for Education, who, sadly, is not in her place. The House will acknowledge that rejection, especially public rejection, is difficult to bear. All hon. Members know that, behind the scenes, the Secretary of State has been working hard to try to obtain additional money for the education service.

We know that, behind the scenes, the right hon. Lady has made it clear that she knows that the recent education settlement will damage the education service, that a number of teachers will have to be sacked, and that she believes class sizes will rise. I congratulate her on the fact that she managed to give a speech in which none of that, and none of the public humiliation that she suffered as a result of her Cabinet colleagues' rejection of her pleas, showed through.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): In my county of Leicestershire, the Conservatives put forward a budget that would have given an extra £1 million to education. The Liberal Democrat leader on Leicestershire county council said that, if he had an extra £1 million, he would not spend it on schools. Does the hon. Gentleman stand by that statement?

Mr. Foster: Many decisions have been made at local level by local authorities that are placed in considerable difficulty because of the restraints on finance imposed in recent settlements under the Government.

Mr. Jacques Arnold rose --

Mr. Foster: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. Without knowing the details of the Leicestershire case, it would be inappropriate for me to comment, but it is interesting that, both in the Chamber and on the radio in the past 24 hours, we have heard a number of examples of what Liberal Democrat and Labour authorities have done. One relates to Bedfordshire county council. The Secretary of State suggested on the radio this morning, and repeated at the Dispatch Box today, that the Liberal Democrat and Labour administration in Bedfordshire had produced a budget that was less for education than the Conservatives had.

This morning, however, the Secretary of State received a letter from that council, pointing out that the information that she gave on the radio and subsequently did not tie in with the budget figures in Bedfordshire, where the Liberal Democrat-Labour administration put forward a budget amounting to nearly £250 million more than that of the

Column 1057

Conservatives. It is not the other way around. I need to know the details of the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan).

Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West): The hon. Gentleman should consider Bedfordshire's budget more closely. The Labour-Liberal budget has resulted in a 3.5 per cent. cut in school budgets. The Conservative budget, in addition to funding teachers' pay, resulted in a 2 per cent. cut. That is a difference of 1.5 per cent. Each 1 per cent. amounts to £35,000 in one upper school. Therefore, an extra £52,500 has been cut from the budget of one upper school in Bedfordshire. Those are the correct figures

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is making the point that Conservative Members are making the most incredible use of some statistics.

I have the budget figures that were contained in the budget proposals of the two political groups. Today at the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State told us clearly that more money was being made available for the education service. Of course, everyone knows that that amount of money is an increase on the previous year, but she refused to acknowledge that, in real terms, the amount of money has decreased by £50 per primary pupil and by nearly £200 per secondary pupil.

People outside need to know the statistics that make it clear what is happening on the ground. Parents, teachers and governors know that the education service in their region is being cut and that, as a result, the quality of education being provided to their children is being harmed.

Mr. John Carlisle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: I shall not give way. Although I do not have to comply with the 10-minute rule, Madam Speaker is keen for me to stay as close to it as I can. Perhaps I shall give way when I have made a little progress.

It is interesting that the Cabinet is clearly split on education. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury wants nursery vouchers, yet the Secretary of State opposes them. Earlier today at the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State said that the ideas of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) on Manchester grammar school were refreshing, and she invited him to tea to discuss them. Only yesterday, however, the Prime Minister rejected those ideas in his answers at Prime Minister's Question Time.

It is reported that the President of the Board of Trade and the Foreign Secretary, who are running scared of the backlash caused by education cuts, want more money to be spent on schools rather than on tax cuts, yet, needless to say, the Chancellor of the Exchequer opposes that.

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, makes claims about the number of local education authority administrators. Frankly, his claims would not pass key stage 1 in mathematics. If he considers his own local education authority, he will find that, out of the nearly 8,000 teachers and support staff, such as caretakers, cleaners and education welfare officers, less than one in 26 are involved in LEA administration--hardly the two administrators per three teachers that he claimed.

Column 1058

The Prime Minister knows, and the Cabinet knows only too well, that LEAs have already been forced to cut into the bone as a result of education cuts. To misquote Winston Churchill, the Government have got themselves into a shambles wrapped in confusion inside chaos. Mr. Jacques Arnold rose --

Mr. Foster: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He and I have had extremely extensive correspondence on the issues that no doubt he wants to raise. He can refer to the letters that I have written to him in relation to the point that I am sure he wants to raise.

As a result of all that chaos, our teachers, our governors and, perhaps most important, our pupils suffer. They suffer from having larger classes-- 1 million primary pupils are in classes of more than 30, and 100,000 in classes of more than 36. They suffer because the school buildings are falling down around their ears. A survey last week revealed that more than a quarter of schools have been forced to close dilapidated buildings, and nearly 20 per cent. of schools have had pupils or staff suffering from illness or injury linked to poor conditions.

It is hardly surprising that truanting has increased. Instead of fining parents for not sending their children to school, perhaps we should fine Ministers for not making the money available to ensure that schools are places where children want to go.

The failure to fund the education service means that there is now a £4.3 billion backlog of repairs and maintenance to school buildings.

Mr. John Carlisle: It is, of course, easy to spend someone else's money, which is the hon. Gentleman's party's policy. He criticised the Conservative authority's budget in Bedfordshire, but I remind him that, under the Liberal-Labour budget now accepted by the council, it is estimated that between 250 and 300 redundancies will have to be made in the education service. Under the Conservative budget, some 140 redundancies would have to be made, because we are making greater savings elsewhere. In other words, his party is concerned not with jobs but with pouring more money into what seems in Bedfordshire to be a bottomless pit.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has a very peculiar view of the nature of the education service. One of the problems is that many Conservative Members seem to believe--just like the Prime Minister when he talked about administrators--that one can provide an education service without any of the back-up and support that teachers desperately need in the classroom. That is what worries many people. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would reflect on the point of having Ofsted inspectors identify problems in schools--problems that teachers often already know about--but for there then to be no back-up and support to help the schools to put matters right.

The situation is already bad enough, but let us reflect on what the Government are now doing. The Secretary of State did not deny that, under the financial support settlement, the Government have cut £50 in real terms from spending on every primary school pupil and nearly £200 from spending on every secondary school pupil. In effect, that is a cut of £10,000 for a 200-pupil primary school, or a cut of £126, 000 for a 650-pupil secondary school. The total is a £700 million cut. How can local education authorities possibly make up such a shortfall?

Column 1059

Many people outside have rumbled the Government. They know that the problems cannot be blamed on local education authorities, but that the blame must be put fairly and squarely on central Government cuts, where it belongs. Perhaps the most cynical reaction since Herod asked the wise men to take him to greet the baby was to support an increase for teachers but not to fund it.

The situation was beautifully summed up in a letter that I read recently in an education magazine. The letter read:

"Dear Editor, My son was pleased when I told him I was putting his pocket money up by five pounds. He was a bit bemused when I told him I was not funding the increase. When he asked me where the money was coming from, I told him that was his problem."

That is the problem faced by schools across the country.

Mr. Duncan: Where is the money to come from?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman should perhaps put that question to the Secretary of State, because she too has been asking for more money for the education service, but her request has been rejected. Perhaps she now knows how people in the education service feel. People in the service have rumbled the Government. They know that the Government are trying to save money for pre-election tax cut bribes. The Government should not be allowed to succeed.

I hope that the Secretary of State will continue to press the Cabinet for more money for the education service, and that she will not give up in the attempt. If she does not succeed, the only honourable thing for someone in her position is to resign her post. I am sorry that she is not here to hear me say this. She has, at least privately, indicated her support for the education service. The time has now come, however, for her to put her job on the line to secure a decent future for our schools, and I hope that she will do so this evening by supporting the Labour motion.

5.44 pm

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): That was a fascinating tirade by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I happen to have had the privilege of knowing the Secretary of State for Education for a very long time. She was, in fact, the inspector at the village school to which my children went--six of them. She was a very good inspector, just as she had been a very good teacher.

My right hon. Friend was far from humiliated in the recent Budget discussions. Although the national Budget was frozen overall, two Secretaries of State won increases for their Departments' budgets--the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Education. I reckon that the ladies did rather well.

The remarks of the hon. Member for Bath do not entirely surprise me. He had the great privilege of attending Lancaster Royal grammar school--he was the only Liberal it ever turned out. His school report boded ill for the Liberal party. It read as follows:

"Muddle-headed and impulsive. May grow out of it. Daft and illogical. Does less than justice to work by indulging in irreverence and orgies of bad spelling."

We cannot judge the quality of his spelling, but we can judge the quality of his logic.

Column 1060

Reference has already been made to the fact that the motion ranges very widely. I have the great privilege of having several superb schools in my constituency, and many of the pupils who have attended them--including the hon. Member for Bath--went on to university. As the House may be somewhat tired of hearing by now, I also have an absolutely superb university in my constituency. In today's hierarchy, it is third only to Oxford, which is a superb university, and to Cambridge, which is not too bad.

Lancaster university has led the field in so many subjects and is now on an international plane. It set the scene for the whole university world when, last week, it raised no less than £35 million on the stock exchange on the strength of its reputation. Is that not an enormous tribute to the work it has done?

I am very interested in the observations that have been made about staffing, and I am very keen to learn about staffing at county hall. I was astounded to find that, although further education has been removed from the orbit of the county councils, and although much of the county councils' work has been removed because of local management of schools, staffing gains have nevertheless been made in administration. In Preston in 1990-91, there were 503 full-time equivalents. The figure then shot up to 543, despite the fact that further education had been removed from county council control, and local management of schools had transferred much work from county to schools. Last year, the figure went up to 548.

The Secretary of State referred to a cut of £500,000 in Lancashire's administration. I laughed, because the £500,000 cut was a tightening of the rules because of the excessive amount of sick pay taken by county hall staff, which was mentioned by the Audit Commission.

I was so extremely incensed by the way in which the county had cut the money for our schools that I decided to go into the question of grant- maintained status. GM status was not only a Conservative idea you know, ladies and gentlemen-- [Interruption.] Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, I mean hon. Members, although some hon. Members are ladies and gentlemen.

There was a fascinating item in the Evening Standard a week last Tuesday which quoted Eric Hammond, a chairman of a school which is trying to become grant-maintained. I could not have agreed with him more. I do not recall having agreed with him before, but I did on that occasion. He said:

"It is not in our interests to be tied to an expensive bureaucracy."

By golly, it is not in our interests either.

There is also a very good school in Bradford which has just become grant- maintained. The headmaster of that school is a former Labour councillor. He told a friend of mine who was there only last Friday, so it was fairly recently, that, if a Labour Government were elected--heaven preserve us-- and abolished grant-maintained status, he would take immediate early retirement.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to Baverstock school. I have been circulating the cutting of Mr. Hammond's piece and the cutting about Baverstock school to all the parents who write to me about GM status, because it shows what can be achieved when governors, parents and teachers take their courage in both hands and decide that their fate and that of their children shall be in their own hands and not those of the county.

Column 1061

Baverstock was an extremely rundown school, and now it is in fine fettle. Since becoming grant-maintained, it has taken on 12 new teachers. It was forecast that, once it gained GM status, it would get rid of children who were more difficult to educate--but far from it. Of those 12 teachers, two teach children with special needs on a one-to -one basis .

My right hon. Friend the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) who, alas, is no longer in her place, suggested that school governors should get out the figures for how much better off their schools would be if they were grant-maintained. I have gone one better. I have found out how much better off every school in my constituency would be if it was grant-maintained, and I have circulated the figures to every head teacher and all chairmen of governors.

On Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Sir M. Lennox-Boyd) and I are holding a seminar to discuss with some head teachers and chairmen of governors who have-- [Hon. Members:-- "Who is paying for it?"] It is at our expense--50:50. The seminar is so that teachers and governors can learn how much better off they would be from those schools which have already gained

grant-maintained status. One school in my constituency has had a bite of almost £250,000 taken out of its funding by the county. All schools would be better off. I have always known that, but I did not know by how much until I went into the matter so carefully. The people at the seminar will be able to hear for themselves what has happened to those who have gone down the path of GM status. They will be able to ask as many questions as they like. If hostile people attend, they will be more than welcome, because we will be able to convert them. The future of our children depends on such people having the chance of getting the money they should have direct from the Government. It should not be watered down by county hall, which fritters it away.

5.52 pm

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): The speech of the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) was also a fascinating tirade. I was glad to hear the combative opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). I thought that the Secretary of State, however, made only a grimly determined speech. It did not convince the House. It was perhaps contrived by a desiccated calculating machine. The right hon. Lady certainly came to the House with a weak hand, and she delivered a very weak speech. Indeed, all she offered the nation, in effect, was "tea and sympathy", to quote her words. It was an uncomfortable speech, and her supporters looked uncomfortable as well.

This year, I have made only nine visits to schools in my constituency. When I talk to the class teacher, I find morale very low indeed. When I talk to head teachers, I find them deeply worried. When I talk to governors, I find that they sometimes feel overwhelmed by what are now very onerous responsibilities.

When the deputation came to the House last week for the mass lobby by people from all over the country, I met four people from my locality--two class teachers, a representative of those who lead ancillary workers in the school service, and a local education authority

Column 1062

chairperson. They made the point that there was an absolute and urgent need for more investment and more teachers in the school service.

Anybody who takes the trouble to visit our schools and spends some time in classrooms observing what is going on will quickly be converted to the side of the teacher. Most classrooms are a credit to enter. They display first- rate work. The decoration of the walls and the presentation of the various schemes and projects of the children show any visitor that the class teacher is doing first-rate work. I praise the dedication, conscientiousness and professionalism of the teachers of our country. In the circumstances, they are doing a wonderful job. I would like them to receive more praise and more resources to enable them--even better than now --to deliver a first-rate service to the children in their care.

I could sum up the feeling of secondary school head teachers by citing the reaction of one, who said that there were very few problems in the school itself; the problems came through the letter box. Head teachers are angry at the demands made on them by ministerial fiat, by local education authority questionnaire and by various bulletins.

Head teachers at whatever level want to provide an even better service to the local children and parents. They feel overwhelmed time and time again by a tide of paper--by diktat from central Government--and they are asking for a respite while they try to cope with the demands which have already been made of them. They must be right. The nation's schools now need a breathing space.

If we consider the impact of the leadership by a succession of Conservative Secretaries of State and their legislation, the House might think it sobering. First there was the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), then the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and then the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten). It would be uncontroversial to say that those Secretaries of State were highly controversial. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) tried to secure some peace in his work. From the contribution made by the right hon. Lady, the present Secretary of State, she appears to be suing for peace. History may be kind to the late Sir Keith Joseph, if only because of his technical and vocational education initiative. I did not think there was any malice, since there was certainly no command, from Lord Carlisle.

As Cabinet Ministers in charge of the nation's school service, the reigns of the right hon. Members for Mole Valley and for Oxford, West and Abingdon and of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe were disastrous. They were always seeking to make a reputation, but in so doing, they almost destroyed the school service that they were supposed to be leading and restoring. They almost destroyed the coherence of the civil service, and of the inspectorate and its interface with the school service. Certainly the confidence and self-respect of the teaching force was gravely impaired by many Conservative Secretaries of State, and that communicated itself to parents and governing bodies.

Governing bodies then found that there was an urgent need to raise money through sales of work and so on to provide the essentials for our schools in the late 20th century. Her Majesty's Government carelessly embarked

Column 1063

on a series of privatisations of public utilities, and used the funds raised from those great sales of the family silver to give tax cuts to the better-off. Meanwhile, the cuts in the school service continued. That had to be wrong.

Today, there remains a miserable scene of cuts and frustration. Children in communities with large-scale unemployment and poverty are not getting the chances they deserve. They are only young once. Many children stay up far too late at night, are irregular attenders and exist on poor diets. Concentration can be woeful, and distractions are legion.

Many children in our schools do not have two parents, and for some children, the school is frequently a substitute home. It also provides them with a source of protein, and a venue for standards and for prayers. Schools are the places where right and wrong are patiently explained by dedicated teachers. We should not starve our schools of resources and of the desperately needed additional teachers.

From parliamentary answers given to me, I know that class sizes are creeping up, and now teachers are expected to cope with the consequences of a powerful social revolution roaring through our country--and this at a great pace. That poses serious problems for them, and they must be given the resources to get on with coping with those massive challenges.

Above all, parents are asking the Government for more teachers. In the primary sector, especially, average class sizes are increasing; in the smaller high schools there is a sense of desperation. We want central Government to provide a better delivery of the essential services at the chalk face for teachers, parents and governors. To sum up, parents want the leaking roof to be plugged and the classrooms to be redecorated. They are not asking for the earth. They do not want a revolution; they simply want justice, and a fair deal from the Government.

6.2 pm

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North): In listening to the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) and to all the Opposition Members who have spoken so far, I detect a close similarity in their speeches. That reflects the lack of choice, diversity and excitement in Opposition education policies that always becomes clear in such debates. Perhaps that is partly explained by the report on the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), about which we enjoyed hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman). I am glad that this is a wide-ranging debate, because it will give me the chance to talk about selection, choice and excellence in education. Those issues underpin the reason why Opposition education policies have failed in the past, and will fail in the future, should they ever be tried.

As the debate is partly about teachers and their pay, perhaps at this stage I should declare a connection with, and an interest in, the Professional Association of Teachers.

There is no doubt that in the constituencies there has been a political campaign on education orchestrated by the Opposition. It has been unscrupulous and unhelpful and has done education no service at all. I have made a point of visiting schools in my constituency in Norwich, and I am well aware of the situation in Norfolk. The Secretary of State for Education is right when she says

Column 1064

that schools' problems should be examined objectively, discussed properly, and where there are difficulties--here I agree with Opposition Members--they should be debated and tackled. But that is not the same as a mega-political campaign that does education no good.

In Norfolk we recently had a meeting of governors and parents, and schools have been advised, unwisely I believe, to go beyond their deficits and to set illegal budgets. I agree with the Norfolk politicians who are telling the governors and parents that they should reconsider before plunging their schools into the red. I am glad to see one of the Opposition Members nodding in agreement, because it is the Labour leader of the Norfolk education committee who is giving that advice.

I am happy to support the Government amendment. After all, since 1979 there has been a substantial increase in education spending under the Conservative Government, and more money is available for local authorities than there was last year. But my main aim tonight is to highlight the Government's determination to improve standards and choice in education-- and choice extends to methods of funding. I believe that perhaps we should have moved more quickly to direct funding of schools by the state. I prefer the grant-maintained system, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster supports so enthusiastically, as do many of my hon. Friends. It represents a step in the right direction.

I support that mode of funding because of the greater transparency that it provides. Arguments about education would not be mixed up with standard spending assessments and local authorities if school funding were not mixed up with the complications of local authority funding. That is the problem. The problem is not the excellent performance by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is doing an excellent job, but the way in which schools are funded. I support those who say that we should have more direct funding and expand the grant-maintained sector where possible.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thompson: No, I shall not, because of the time limit; otherwise I should have been happy to do so.

I must refer to an important matter of which I have personal experience. The Opposition opposed the idea of grant-maintained schools, root and branch. I know that because I was on the Committee considering the legislation that introduced it. I am not sure what the Opposition's present view is; perhaps there will be more time to debate that on another occasion. However, they opposed it, root and branch, at the time, as they always oppose attempts to give parents, teachers and children greater diversity and choice in education. Opposition Members may have forgotten what happened in the past, but I have not, because I entered teaching in 1960--at Manchester grammar school, which is in the news at the moment. I hope that Opposition Members will listen carefully to what I say because the Labour party, in Manchester and elsewhere, opposed everything that stood in the way of steamrollering in the comprehensive system. Whatever one may feel about comprehensive schools--and there are many good ones--the manner in which they were introduced did damage to

Column 1065

education from which the country has still not yet recovered. That was done by Shirley Williams and by Anthony Crosland, who said: "if it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every grammar school in England and Wales and Northern Ireland".

The damage was done at that time, and that is why direct grant schools-- such as Manchester grammar school, Bradford grammar school and many others- -were forced, against their will and better judgment, to leave the state system.

I do not have time to say very much about this matter, but I remember the tradition of Manchester grammar school because I taught there. The tradition was to help poorer pupils who were bright to have the very best opportunities, and many Opposition Members and civil servants have gained from education at those schools. The Labour party forced those schools to go independent. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), who brackets those schools with other public schools. There is a difference, as the tradition of direct grant schools is to help poorer people. Labour was responsible for the plight of such schools.

The Labour party is still opposed to selection. Having read recent reports on the matter, I know that Manchester grammar school--even if it returns to the state, which it wants to do as that is true to its traditions--still believes in selection. I heard the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), and it is clear that Labour is still implacably opposed to selection. It is still on the egalitarian ticket which is doing so much damage to education, and it will have a problem in the future.

The issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is important, because direct grant schools are still tremendous schools and everyone here recognises that. I hope that all Members will think seriously about ideas which have been put forward for their future. Perhaps the Schools Funding Council, or even the grant-maintained schools concept, is appropriate, but I understand the funding implications which lie behind that.

I think that I have made my point about the difficulties that the Opposition have in terms of education. It is the same old problem of levelling everyone down which always destroys Labour's education policies; it could do so again. That is why I support the Government's amendment. We are right to go for choice and diversity and to encourage good standards, not only in our direct grant schools but in all schools. I hope that Ministers will continue to aim to fund education as much as they can, but-- more importantly--that they will continue to pursue policies which will lead to the best quality of education for our young people.

6.12 pm

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): This is an important debate on the most important asset of this nation--our children and their future education-- and it is right to try to focus attention on what the Government are doing.

I wish to refer to a letter that appeared in the Burnley Express last Friday which underlines the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). In the main, the people who are leading the opposition to what is happening are not county councillors or Members of Parliament, but the parents and governors who

Column 1066

recognise what is happening. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) referred to the involvement of parents and governors in the issue; if we want them to be genuinely involved in the local management of schools, we must take account of what was in that letter.

The letter stated:

"As a school governor and parent, I am appalled at the horrendous cuts in school budgets which the Government is to impose in the financial year 1995/96 . . . If letters arrive by the sackful we may be able to persuade the Government to stop these swingeing cuts which are about to befall schools and, ultimately, if left alone will destroy our education system."

Many parents and governors--they are not involved in politics, and are not Conservatives, Liberals or Labour supporters--say that, following the introduction of local management of schools they have been given responsibilities to do certain things, but they have not been given the finances to do the job. Many of them do not understand that, because they believe that the Government have given them the responsibility and genuinely expect them to do the job. That is why they are now concerned at the further tightening of the financial screw which will occur this year.

The front-page headline of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph last night was "Savage Staff Cuts At Schools". The story underneath went on to say:

"Secondary schools throughout East Lancashire are facing cutbacks averaging £100,000 each and are having to ask two or three teachers to take early retirement.

At least one school is also considering spending more than it has been allowed by Lancashire County Council to try to stave off the worst effects of the most savage cuts in years."

A teacher from St Theodore's high school in my constituency said: "We are reducing our staff level by three. They will be taking early retirement. Spending on capitation--books and equipment--is frozen at last year's level which is almost the same as the previous year's. Repairs and maintenance will be down to essential, day-to-day repairs."

The editorial of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph yesterday stated:

"The cruel truth is that for the sake of a relatively small amount of cash, everyone is suffering. Children, the most important people of all, tomorrow's citizens who will ultimately hold the future of this country in their hands, will receive the direct hit. Then there are dedicated and already hard-pressed teachers wondering whether they will be out on the streets next week. Parents, too, are worried sick about their children's future worrying if they will get the attention they need, whether those with special needs will have enough help, and whether even the brightest can manage to cope against a background of cutbacks and decaying buildings . . . The latest round of cuts is an iniquity. The pain is not limited to Lancashire, it is being felt all over the country. Things have gone too far this time. Before long, one way or another, those responsible can expect the caning they deserve." We all want the opportunity to make those responsible pay for the cuts. They should be put into opposition, and let us take over the Government and provide money for education, as one of our priorities is to ensure that education is provided with the funds that it needs.

I have been in correspondence in recent weeks with Ministers, including the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools whose word processor must be

Next Section

  Home Page