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Ms Estelle Morris: Just once.

Mr. Marshall: No, many times over.

As the House knows, I have twice introduced Adjournment debates over the past 10 months on standards in education, and I make no apology for concentrating on that subject again. Education is the escalator of opportunity, which provides poor children from inner cities and children living in squalor on some of our rundown council estates with the chance to escape from that background and make full use of their skills and opportunities.

One of the tragedies in the United Kingdom is the way in which local education authorities, such as the late and unlamented Inner London education authority and Islington council, have failed entire generations of children. They have condemned them to life in squalor because they have not allowed them to leave school with a full and complete education. That is a scandal. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) is not here in sackcloth and ashes to apologise for her record as leader of Islington council.

I have expressed my fear in many speeches that standards have dropped over the past 30 years. If we look for the reasons, we can see them. They include the abolition of many grammar schools, the decline of traditional teaching methods, the refusal to stream and set in comprehensive schools, and calculators taking the place of mental arithmetic. Some schools do not believe in homework. I met a headmistress who said that she did not believe in setting homework, because it was unfair on the children who were not given it, as they did not have the opportunity to benefit from it.

Ms Estelle Morris: Why then does the hon. Gentleman not support homework for everyone, which is the Labour party's policy?

Mr. Marshall: Everyone should believe in homework.

Ms Morris rose--

Mr. Marshall: I have only a few minutes, so I am not giving way.

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We have seen a decline in discipline as a result of the abolition of corporal punishment. We need a drastic rethink in the way in which some of our comprehensive schools work, because they have failed many of the bright pupils and certainly many of the not-so-bright pupils, who want not necessarily an academic education, but an education that will fit them for life outside school.

I always remember going to a school in Israel, where children were being taught hairdressing and how to become a motor mechanic. The head of the school said, "You may wonder why we are teaching those skills, but we can guarantee that every child who leaves this school will have a job," and pointed out that nearly all the small garages in Jerusalem were owned by graduates of the school. We fail some of the less bright children by saying that they need an academic education, when in fact a practical education would be much more suitable.

It is important to emphasise the role of grant-maintained schools, which have had a tremendous record in increasing staffing and spending on books and teaching equipment, and in widening the curriculum on offer. Hendon school, one of the first grant-maintained schools in London, has become a language academy and now offers a much wider choice to its pupils. Indeed, 60 per cent. of schools have improved their position in the league tables since they became grant-maintained. The reason why they have done so is that, instead of spending 12 per cent. of their budgets on administration, as local authority schools do, they spend only 6 per cent. Less administration is good for education. That is where grant-maintained schools have succeeded and local authority schools have failed.

Why is the Labour party opposed to such schools? It is because it puts dogma before democracy and socialism before standards. The sheer hypocrisy of the Labour party sticks in the gullet of the people of this country. The leader of the Labour party sends his children away from Islington to a grant-maintained school, yet seeks to deny that freedom to others. Those are double standards. When one hears the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) say that the education of Southwark local education authority is suitable for her constituents but not for herself and her children, one believes that double standards are alive and kicking in the Labour party today.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is currently considering applications from three schools in my constituency for grant-maintained status: from Pardes House, Menorah Foundation and Torah Teminah, all of which teach the children of many parents in my constituency. I hope that he will listen to what I say and grant those applications in the very near future. I have been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to look favourably on an application for a voluntary aided school in Hertsmere that is sponsored by the most excellent and go-ahead Rabbi Plancey.

I am surprised at the Labour party's opposition to the assisted places scheme. I suppose that one needs only to have a party led by an old Fettesian to prevent poor children enjoying the same benefits as he did. It is surely wrong that bright children of low-income parents should be denied the opportunity that the Leader of the Opposition was given by his parents. I suppose that that is called socialism today, but most of us call it humbug and hypocrisy of the worst sort.

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We have seen the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) rush around the Wirral saying that the Labour party is interested in standards. Let him visit Wirral grammar school again and remind those there that the only reason why it is still a grammar school is that my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher saved grammar schools in 1979. If she had lost the election that year, there would not be a grammar school left in the country for the Conservative party to defend. Whatever the hon. Gentleman may say now about standards to the parents of Wirral, South, he should say that Labour local authority after Labour local authority has shown itself to be quite indifferent to standards.

There is only one party committed to standards, and that is the Conservative party. Every measure that the Government have introduced to improve standards has been opposed by both main Opposition parties. The Opposition prattle on about spending more money, but have done nothing to improve education standards one jot or tittle.

9.3 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): How distant all the talk of grammar schools, opting out and grant-maintained schools seems to the majority of my constituents. I live in and represent a constituency in which the schools, for the most part, went comprehensive under a Conservative Government and a then Conservative- controlled local authority. There is only one grant- maintained school in the entire constituency, and that became grant-maintained because the Labour-controlled county council threatened to close it. In other schools where the grant-maintained issue has been raised, the proposal has been heavily defeated. The assisted places scheme, too, has a limited impact in the area, and what the vast majority of parents want to know is how the schools to which they send their children can be enabled to do an adequate job.

I shall talk about the situation in Northumberland in particular because, as the Minister will be aware from his meeting earlier today and from many other representations, people are greatly concerned about it. However much he may disagree with them on the implications of the figures, he must know how great that concern is.

I must declare an interest, in that my wife is employed by Northumberland education authority as a teacher, and both my children are in further education in Northumberland, having received the whole of their previous education in the county's schools.

Northumberland has particular difficulties, because it is such a thinly populated county. It has the smallest population, yet the largest area, of any mainland county in England. That creates serious problems, because of the number of schools that need to be maintained in remoter communities and the transport costs of getting children to school, especially if some schools are closed as an economy measure.

Northumberland has also had problems with education settlements over the years. It lost about £7 million when the standard spending assessment replaced the previous scheme of education funding. The authority was especially disadvantaged by two factors.

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First, the additional educational needs factor cost the county £5 million. It was a big factor in the standard spending assessment formula, and reflected needs different from the main needs in Northumberland. For example, it stressed needs connected with ethnic minorities, but not those connected with sparsity or with some of the social problems of the county.

Secondly, the area cost adjustment was increased substantially when the SSAs were introduced, and that affected Northumberland badly, too. The problem has continued, and as a result there have been cuts year after year in Northumberland schools and in the overall education budget. The cuts have been mitigated to some extent by making savings in other parts of the county's budget and in central education administration costs, and by drawing on reserves. But one cannot go on drawing on reserves, as has happened in recent years.

The way in which the Government discuss the figures has a fairyland quality. They talk about additional money, when all they mean is permission for local authorities to spend more, whether through their SSAs or their capping figures. They refer to substantial increases this year compared with last year, although last year's figure was so much higher than the SSA that this year's "increase" does not even completely cover it.

That is a factor common to many local authorities. Were the authority to spend next year what the Government now, with a great flourish, say that it can spend, it would be spending only what it actually spent in the current year. That has been the problem for Northumberland, as for several other authorities, and, for the reasons that I have given, it has been especially acute there.

Far from providing for a 3.4 per cent. increase, Northumberland's SSA for the coming year represents no more than current spending. The cap allows an increase of only 2.4 per cent., whereas even a standstill budget would have required 5 per cent. That means a £10 million gap. So schools face a possible 2.5 per cent. budget cut, and central services a much bigger one.

Year on year, the county has drawn heavily on central services for cuts, to try to protect school budgets.

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