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Grant-maintained Schools

3. Mr. Legg: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many pupils are currently being educated in grant-maintained schools. [3870]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard): More than 680,000 pupils are currently being educated in grant-maintained schools in England.

Mr. Legg: I welcome the fact that 680,000 pupils are now educated in grant-maintained schools. Does my right hon. Friend agree that grant-maintained status is the best route for education, as it leads to higher academic standards and lower truancy than in neighbouring schools directly controlled by local education authorities?

Mrs. Shephard: Yes. I agree with my hon. Friend that the results in grant-maintained schools in terms of academic results, truancy, behaviour and so on compare very well with comparable schools in the maintained sector.

Mr. Spearing: Is it not a fact that the Government are claiming that education can be as well based in grant-maintained schools as in those that are locally administered? Does that not mean that the accusation could be made that the Government's long-term policy is the elimination of local education authorities as we know them today? Will she confirm that that suspicion is well based in respect of the legislation that she has put in place?

Mrs. Shephard: There are very real benefits for pupils in grant-maintained schools, as I have just said. Those benefits are clearly perceived by 1.3 million parents whose children attend grant-maintained schools. According to a survey in The Times Educational Supplement last year, it is the view of heads and governors of grant-maintained schools that the independence of those schools from LEAs and the flexibility to handle their entire budgets contribute directly to the success of the schools. Therefore, it would be irresponsible not to examine whether those benefits might be extended to all pupils.


4. Mr. Steen: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what plans she has to reduce the number of regulations in force supporting (a) education and (b) employment matters; and what savings she estimates will be made in each. [3871]

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Mr. Eric Forth): We shall continue with the policies which have already made the United Kingdom one of the least regulated countries in Europe.

Mr. Steen: While the Deputy Prime Minister waxes lyrical about the importance of deregulation and the Prime Minister tells the leaders of Europe that they should follow our example, is my right hon. Friend aware that her Department has not referred any regulations or rules to the Select Committee on Deregulation? The only education rule that has been referred for deregulation is one about the length of the school day. As I am a great fan of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, before

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the Prime Minister finds out, would she make some plans--if not for 1995, for 1996--to have a bumper deregulation year?

Mr. Forth: Can I share a trade secret with my hon. Friend? One of the great difficulties faced by those of us who are extremely anxious to deregulate is that, every time we invite those who rightly complain about bureaucracy and regulation to give us specific examples so that we can tackle them as vigorously as possible, we get a disappointing response. When I had responsibilities for schools, I used to invite head teachers in particular, but chairmen of governors as well, to give me specific cases on which we could work. I regret to say that I am still waiting. If my hon. Friend can help to encourage small businesses, schools and others to give us specific examples, we shall do our best to deal with them.

Mrs. Clwyd: Will the Minister confirm that, rather than strengthening the already inadequate child labour laws in Britain, he is proposing to deregulate them even further so that the 1.5 million to 2 million children working illegally in Britain will get even less protection than at present? Is it Government policy to exploit children?

Mr. Forth: Quite apart from the fact that hon. Lady is completely wrong in her assertion, we are anxious to give young people every proper, legitimate opportunity to enjoy the experience of an appropriate degree of work so that they can broaden and build on their educational experience. I would be rather disappointed if the hon. Lady were suggesting that young people should have no experience of work in properly controlled circumstances and with the proper degree of protection. That is our aim, and I hope that she shares it.

Mr. John Marshall: Would my hon. Friend like to compare the thirst of Conservative Members to get rid of regulation with the enthusiasm of other people in Europe and of the Opposition for introducing job-destroying regulations?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is right to pose that distinction. Let us not underestimate the real difficulties that apply. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, no less, is spearheading the Government's effort in this direction, and he has, of course, our full support. It would help enormously if all Members of Parliament and their constituents were to give us as many concrete examples as they can of where regulation and bureaucracy is giving them difficulty so that we can look specifically at them and direct the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deregulation Committee to them.

Grant-maintained Schools

5. Mr. Robert Ainsworth: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what representations she has received concerning her proposals to fast-track grant-maintained status for voluntary aided schools. [3872]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Cheryl Gillan): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received almost 2,000 responses to the Department's consultation paper on self-government for voluntary aided schools.

Mr. Ainsworth: Is it not a fact that self-governing schools have not only the ability but the obligation to

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consider opting out each year, and that what is now being disguised as a fast track by the Government is a deliberate attempt to deny parents the opportunity to choose? That is right-wing dogma dressed up as a fast track.

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman could not possibly be more wrong. Grant-maintained status remains voluntary, and we are not at present proposing to change that, but we are committed to extending the benefits of self-government to more schools. We are looking at ways of bringing that about.

Mr. Pawsey: Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to confirm that the Government have no intention of dragooning Church schools into a fast-track approach to grant-maintained status, and further confirm that there has simply been issued a consultation document that poses a number of alternatives? Finally, does she agree that it would be a good idea for the Churches to consult widely among parents so that their representations truly reflect what is best for the children at those schools?

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend is right. We have received more than 1,900 responses to the consultation process and we are considering all the replies carefully. We shall make an announcement on that after the analysis has been completed.

Mr. Kilfoyle: In a written reply on 4 December to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the Under-Secretary of State for Schools listed 23 separate issues that had gone out to consultation, only three of which had met the Department for Education and Employment's efficiency guidelines of a minimum of 10-week consultation. On that matter, the Government allowed four weeks, extended under pressure to five. In so doing, they have managed to unite the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the National Governors Council. Is that lack of consultation down to the Secretary of State's arrogance, or to obsequiousness to the Prime Minister's educational pipe dreams?

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree. This is a consultation process and we have received many responses. Responses to the paper were requested by 24 November. To show that my right hon. Friend is a listening Secretary of State, she listened to the request to extend the consultation period, and did so by one week to 1 December. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should listen to the reply--he asked the question. A substantially longer consultation period, would have effectively removed the option of legislation in the 1995-96 parliamentary Session, which would have been wrong. Our consultation processes are truly just that.

Teaching Quality

6. Mr. Lidington: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what steps she is taking to improve further the quality of teaching in schools. [3873]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: We are improving teacher quality across the entire profession, from a new qualification for aspiring head teachers to securing, through the Teacher Training Agency and the Office of Standards in Education, high-quality initial teacher training.

Mr. Lidington: Does my right hon. Friend agree that a good and dedicated classroom teacher can probably

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have a more important, more beneficial, influence on a child's life chances than virtually any other single factor, whatever the child's social background or the region in which his or her school is located? Will she join me in praising the dedication of thousands of good teachers in maintained schools, but encourage the teaching profession to take seriously the call from Her Majesty's chief inspector for them to reflect carefully and critically on teaching methods and other professional skills, so that those skills develop in the interests of the children whom they seek to serve?

Mrs. Shephard: The importance of good teachers and good teaching is undeniable. That is why Conservative Members have made such a priority of training, of in-service training, and of grants for education support and training money to help raise teaching standards. There are thousands and thousands of dedicated teachers. Working with the Teacher Training Agency and with Ofsted, they are examining the importance of teaching the basic skills. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to my announcement after the Budget about the 12 literacy and numeracy centres that we are setting up across the country. Their attention will be directed towards helping primary teachers teach reading and numbers according to the best methods identified by Ofsted.

Mr. Chris Davies: Will the Secretary of State accept that widespread public concern exists about her plans to revise the school premises regulations, and that schools with rising pupil numbers may be forced to cram even more children into overcrowded classrooms? How will that improve the quality of children's education?

Mrs. Shephard: The hon. Gentleman entirely misunderstands the purpose of this deregulatory measure, which we were urged, I think in an earlier question, to adopt. There is no link between the work that is going on about minimum teaching areas and class size. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is no simple link between numbers of teachers or the amount of funding and higher achievement in the classroom. I am afraid that those who do not believe that should look at the striking illustration of Hackney Downs school, which had one teacher for every eight pupils.

Mr. David Nicholson: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to concentrate on the overdue task of improving teaching standards and methods. I particularly emphasise the teaching of reading in primary schools, where modern methods have done an enormous amount of damage. Does she agree that good pupil-teacher ratios do not necessarily mean high standards, as was found recently in Hackney Downs school? When she is listening to criticisms by Opposition parties, will she take account of the increase in classroom assistants, which I do not think are reflected in pupil-teacher ratios throughout the country?

Mrs. Shephard: Of course I will, and so will the teaching profession, head teachers and governors of schools. The important role of classroom assistants cannot be over-emphasised, and nor can the importance of proper training for all our teachers.

Mr. O'Hara: While it is welcome to have the Secretary of State and members of her party acknowledging that only good teachers can deliver quality education to pupils, may I ask what she intends to do about the crisis that is

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emerging in education of an exodus of teachers, largely due to their health being broken by the excessive pace of reforms being introduced by the Government, the lack of recruitment of teachers in general and of specialist teachers in such important subjects as English, maths and design technology? What are her policies for improving the supply of teachers?

Mrs. Shephard: Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. A great deal has been said about redundancy among teachers, but very little has been said about the overall number of teachers which increased by 2,500 between January last year and January this year. There is no shortage of teachers at present and vacancies are at an all-time low. Indicative targets were issued for five years to assist the Teacher Training Agency and training institutions to plan ahead, especially for shortage subjects. They recently announced their priority subject recruitment scheme and they have begun promotional activities to attract students to the profession.

Mr. Harry Greenway: Will my right hon. Friend accept that, notwithstanding all the tributes that have rightly been paid to my constituent and friend Philip Lawrence, formerly headmaster of St. George's school, I could not let Education and Employment questions pass without paying tribute to his enormous professional courage and personal bravery in going to the defence of a member of his school? May I also say, as he would have said, that he did no more than any other member of the teaching profession would have done? It is a great profession. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Mrs. Shephard: I agree, and I am absolutely sure that the whole House would want to pay tribute to Mr. Philip Lawrence's selflessness and courage. The greatest possible monument that he could have is the school and the pupils that he has left behind. I am sure that my hon. Friend was right when he said that Mr. Lawrence would have been the first to say that the vast majority of teachers would have done just what he did without a second thought.

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