Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Don Foster: The Secretary of State did not have the opportunity to join us in Committee, but she will have discovered from her ministerial colleagues that, throughout the deliberations in Committee, no hon. Member from either side of the Committee suggested that the state sector was the only way in which high-quality provision could be made. Does she agree that hon. Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged that high-quality provision can be made by a mixture of state, private and voluntary sector provision?

Mrs. Shephard: I am delighted to hear it and pleased that, during a few short weeks, my colleagues have achieved such good conversions among Opposition Members.

We are already beginning to see the fruits of our plans in the four authorities involved in phase 1. Interest in the scheme has been great. In the phase 1 regions, more than 600 private and voluntary sector providers have registered to join the scheme, alongside maintained schools.Of those, at least 40 have no four-year-olds now and will be providing new places. Some 200 providers have

19 Mar 1996 : Column 267

already inquired about phase 2. The helpline has taken more than 20,000 calls from parents and others and some 95,000 copies of the information pack are in circulation.

It gives me great satisfaction that children and parents in those regions will shortly benefit. The first vouchers are already in the hands of parents.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that North Yorkshire education authority has not joined the pilot scheme--even though it claims, rightly, that the majority of four-year-olds are provided for in nursery education?Will she confirm that local authority provision is not threatened by the Bill? Does she agree that a written answer by our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary stating that there are still some 880,000 surplus school places shows that there is plenty of capacity for expansion of nursery education in the state system?

Mrs. Shephard: My hon. Friend is right. I am delighted that the time draws nearer for North Yorkshire children and other children and parents throughout England and Wales to benefit from phase 2 of the scheme, under this Bill.

Sir Malcolm Thornton (Crosby): I want to ask my right hon. Friend the same question I asked on Second Reading, in common with other hon. Friends--notably my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman), who spoke earlier--about the assessment of phase 1. Will she reiterate her view that there will be genuine assessment; that if there are lessons to be learnt, they will be; and that where something does not work, it will not be imposed in phase 2 without that fact being taken into account?

Mrs. Shephard: My hon. Friend has taken a close interest in these matters. I assure him that we shall evaluate exactly how the scheme works as phase 1 proceeds. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has already given an assurance that we shall consider evidence from the inspections when they come on stream this autumn.

I need to make some speedy progress, so I will not take further interventions. I shall also curtail what I had planned to say to give other hon. Members time to speak.

The second part of the Bill concerns grant-maintained schools, which are a success story. There are now 1,100 stretching from Devon to Cumbria. They include schools large and small; primary, secondary and special. Parents from all walks of life make GM schools their first choice. Those parents include several hon. Members--indeed, some distinguished Labour Members--who obviously appreciate the freedoms that enable GM schools to produce such excellent results. It is a pity that their views are not shared by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). His plans would destroy the essence of the GM schools that some of his colleagues enjoy. We, on the other hand, have always said that self-governing status would be successful. Parents also say so when they vote for schools to become self-governing, and now Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools has confirmed it.

Since 1989, the schools have built up a well-deserved reputation for high standards, excellence of provision and popularity with parents. That is because they believe in

19 Mar 1996 : Column 268

themselves and in what is best for pupils. It is small wonder that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield(Mr. Blair), the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and several of their colleagues are queuing up for places at GM schools for their own children. [Interruption.]GM schools quite naturally want to provide the best possible facilities for their pupils--[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. There are too many seated interventions.

Mrs. Shephard: Commercial borrowing will provide additional resources on top of grants already available. Controls on borrowing operated by the Funding Agency for Schools, on behalf of the holder of my office,will ensure that schools are prudent. Subject to those controls, commercial borrowing will enable more capital projects to be supported in more schools. It should also help governors to enter into partnerships with the private sector under the private finance initiative.

Giving borrowing powers to GM governing bodies will bring them into line with other self-governing institutions, such as colleges of further and higher education. It will help them to run their own affairs. It will give them increased power to decide how they want to develop to meet the needs of their pupils and the local community.

The Government's policies have transformed the educational scene. We have driven up standards, increased parental choice and put the power of decision making back where it belongs--with parents, teachers and governors. By contrast, Labour Members say that they support choice--they certainly support it for some. They have learnt how to pronounce the word "diversity".Yet when presented with the chance to give positive support to real choice for all parents and real diversity of school provision, they retreat to the familiar collective protection of the interests of the institution over those of parents and children.

This Bill is about real choice, real diversity and a real increase in standards. That is what Conservative Members believe in. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.39 pm

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside): In opposing Third Reading, I thank my hon. Friends who spoke both for England and for Wales from the Opposition Front Bench, and also my hon. Friends on the Back Benches, for the excellent way in which they have dealt with the Bill both in Committee and throughout today. They have drawn attention to the fact that where there is no place, there is no choice, and where there is no provision, there is no opportunity for parents to redeem their voucher.

The notion that the Secretary of State has put forward tonight, that this is the first major expansion of nursery education in this country--she has just reiterated it--is a shocking observation which will be resented by parents, schools, other providers and by the local education authorities, most but not all of them Labour controlled, which have expanded the nursery education programme against the vehement opposition of the Government over 17 years.

We have welcomed the Conservative party's conversion, at last, to the idea that nursery education is right for the children of this country and that by expanding

19 Mar 1996 : Column 269

it we can give children a decent start in life, and build the opportunities and standards that the Opposition have been promoting. In authorities across the country, against the odds, with reductions in budgets and the abuse that we experienced 15 months ago, when authorities were held to account for daring to spend money on nursery education, we have pressed forward with that cause.

To suggest, as the Secretary of State has done tonight, that providing a paper promise is an alternative to expanding real nursery education, is an insult to the British people. They know, as people involved with the pilot projects have discovered, that a voucher does not offer a nursery place in their locality or within their reach.

Instead of proceeding as the Government are doing, we have offered to sit down with the Government, with the Liberal Democrats and with the private, voluntary and statutory providers to arrange for development plans to be drawn up in every local authority in England and Wales to ensure that we provide those nursery places. But the Government have rejected that suggestion, as they rejected every amendment and every effort to try to make sense of a nonsensical Bill.

The Government rejected the proposal that special consideration and weighted provision should be given to children with special educational needs. The right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), a former Secretary of State for Education and Science, expressed his interest in special needs. I accept his commitment and his belief in the importance of that area--but he of all people, as a former Secretary of State for the Environment, as well as for Education, should know the difference between standard spending assessment and grant, between a myth or a shadow and real resources.

The Government may be able to play ducks and drakes with the British people for one more year, but they will not be able to continue to draw a veil over the eyes of those who will soon see what is being done to them. People will try to redeem their voucher and find that there is no place. As in the pilot projects, people who are already receiving a perfectly decent free place, with highly qualified staff, for their children, and who therefore understandably throw their vouchers in the bin, will not be able to understand why their local nursery school or reception class asks them to fish it out again and present it, so that it can be sent round in a bureaucratic nightmare, to redeem through a chaotic bureaucratic mechanism the same money as is already being provided.

This is the biggest nonsense that the Government have ever invented. They have attempted to create an artificial market where none exists instead of drawing together private, voluntary and local authority providers to plan places. I have to tell the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) that the Government have not planned it in a way that would make it possible to build up places by planning them in neighbourhoods that did not have them and working with parents and teachers in schools to provide them. The idea that a market system and a piece of paper can provide something that people sitting down and working together cannot plan is nonsense. The Secretary of State knows that. It is not only that in its early stages she opposed the scheme, but that her colleagues know that she did.

19 Mar 1996 : Column 270

In the Sunday Express last Sunday--[Interruption.] That is not exactly known as a socialist newspaper. It said:

    They say that she thinks it is Mr. Major's fault for forcing her to go ahead with the scheme despite her doubts."

It continues:

    'She warns them of the pitfalls, but they don't want to know. They go ahead and announce it, shove it on her desk, and tell her to get on with it.'"

Next Section

IndexHome Page