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5 Feb 1997 : Column 1067

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At Scottish questions this afternoon, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) asked me a question and in my answer I said that the hon. Gentleman had been to Libya and referred to him as Labour's man in Libya. The hon. Gentleman has written to me stating that he has never been to Libya. I withdraw my remarks and apologise to the hon. Gentleman for any embarrassment that I may have caused him.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): I must inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.27 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move,

It has become somewhat of a cliche for politicians to declare that education is their first priority, but for Liberal Democrats that has not suddenly become a priority; it always has been. Liberal Democrats seek a society made up of self-reliant individuals who are able to take control of their own lives, to make their own choices and to fulfil their own potential. We seek a society in which each person is valued, each person is different, each person is respectful of others and each person is entitled to be heard. We seek a society in which each person accepts responsibility for his or her actions and each person contributes to the nation's worth, self-confidence and success.

We believe that it is to education that we must turn for the key, because education equips all people with the knowledge and skills that they need to live free and fulfilling lives and to escape from poverty, ignorance and conformity. It must be admitted, however, that, with the mystic milepost of the millennium just three years away, we have a great deal to do.

The forthcoming general election, whenever the Prime Minister has the courage to call it, will provide the people of this country with the opportunity to make choices about the way forward. They will, for example, be able to choose which view to support--that of the Home Secretary, which is that prisons work; or that of Stephen Tumim, which is that the solution to prisons lies in pre-school education. They will have the opportunity to choose which is more important: a genuinely critical thought in each child's head, or a grammar school in every town; a computer for every child, or an income tax cut; an education system based on partnership and co-operation, or one based on competition and market forces.

Despite the excellent work in many of our schools, much more needs to be done. In Germany and France respectively, 62 per cent. and 66 per cent. of young people achieve the equivalent of grades A to C at GCSE in mathematics, the national language and one science subject. Sadly, the figure for Britain is 27 per cent. English pupils are often two years behind their Swiss and German peers at number work by the time they leave primary school. Our national targets for education and training for 2000--which many of us believe we are unlikely to meet--have already been surpassed by

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Germany and Japan. Standards must rise if we, as a nation, are to have any chance of competing internationally in the 21st century.

Against that background, it is hardly surprising that, as Nigel de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers said recently, people throw up their hands in despair when politicians propose merely a string of education gimmicks designed to produce media soundbites rather than to address the real issues that confront the education service. There is perhaps one advantage of some of the gimmicks that have been announced. Sometimes they show politicians' willingness to change their minds.

The House will be aware that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) recently made a pronouncement on the importance of school uniform. The House may be further interested to know that a motion was passed by Sheffield city council on 7 October 1981, which was supported by the hon. Gentleman. It banned all Sheffield schools from punishing, suspending or barring from school any pupil for not wearing school uniform. I hope that he will apply the same willingness to change his mind on the issue of increased funding for education.

Improving standards in our schools is not merely about increased investment. We should also recognise that raising standards depends on high-quality teachers. We could begin to increase teachers' enthusiasm and raise their morale as well as their school's level of achievement if we dropped the blame and shame approach, or the three-course diet for teachers of criticism, criticism and criticism, as the chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency recently described it. We could certainly make better use of existing resources.

As the recent Audit Commission's report "Trading Places" showed, the Government's education policies--particularly their reliance on market forces--have led to millions of pounds being wasted, and thousands of parents being denied their first choice of schools. The nursery voucher scheme is bureaucracy gone mad: the Conservative party would have been breathing hellfire had it been proposed by Brussels. According to local authorities, nursery voucher administration alone is estimated to cost about £43 million a year.

More and more power has been handed to educational quangos. More than 50 per cent. of the Department's educational expenditure is now administered by one or other of them. The average expenditure on salaries and benefits to the chief executives and the chairmen of those quangos has rocketed since 1987.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Robin Squire): The hon. Gentleman knows that two of the larger quangos are the Further Education Funding Council and the Higher Education Funding Council. The logic of what he says is that they should be funded directly by Government. Is that really what he means?

Mr. Foster: No. The Minister should look at our policy documents, because we have made it clear that the work of the Higher Education Funding Council is vital. We have, however, called into question the work of the Further Education Funding Council. We have proposed a

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different mechanism for the funding of further education, which would enable strategic planning to take place locally. Sadly, strategic planning has now disappeared, which has led to much duplication and a waste of money in the FE sector.

The Minister did not refer to the Funding Agency for Schools. We would definitely abolish that quango and save the administrative costs. I am sure that the Minister would be interested to see the figures that I recently received on the cost of education quangos, particularly the cost of their senior employees. The annual payment to the chief executives of education quangos has risen by a staggering 165 per cent. since 1987: they now receive £1,451 a week on average. The payments to the chairmen of those quangos have risen by 146 per cent. during that period to £452 a week for an average week of only 1.6 days. If we want to find further questionable rises in central expenditure, we have only to look at the Department's education publicity and advertising expenditure. From 1987 to 1994-95, it rose from only £1.7 million to £11.1 million.

Notwithstanding the better use of resources, if educational standards are to improve significantly--as I believe that they must if we are to compete in the increasingly global market--we must increase our investment in schools. The Government will no doubt argue that they have increased investment. If we take into account changes in legislation and increasing pupil numbers, such a claim falls far short of reality.

On the ground, parents, teachers and governors see no evidence of improved funding. Even if the Cabinet failed to hear her words, parents, teachers and governors agreed with the leaked memorandum from the Secretary of State in September 1995, in which she said:

In recent years, those people on the ground have seen a massive rise in class sizes. The number of primary pupils in classes of 31 or more has risen to more than 1.28 million, which is an increase of 9.1 per cent. Almost six out of every 10 local education authorities experienced a rise in the number of pupils in classes of 37 or more in just one year--1995-95. In more than one in 10 local authorities--which is 14 per cent.--there was a rise in the number of classes of 41 or more.

Teachers, parents and governors have seen evidence of a shortage of books and equipment. They do not even have to take my word for it. The chief inspector's annual report, which was published yesterday, shows that one in four secondary schools and one in eight primary schools

He went on to point to the one in six schools that have

    "insufficient books to meet the needs of the curriculum."

Increasingly, school buildings are crumbling and overcrowded. The chief inspector's report identified that almost one in five secondary schools have significant weaknesses in some aspects of accommodation, and that, in one in six of those schools, it has a direct impact on specialist teaching, especially in science, design, technology and art. He also pointed to the one in seven schools that have difficulties with accommodation, which he says has

    "a detrimental effect on teaching and learning."

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    He also says that the shortage of space is a feature of almost one in three schools.

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