Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 pm

The third principle on which I base my case for flexibility is that parents' priorities vary when they are choosing a school. As a recent recruit to the Roman Catholic Church, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has made a strong case in the newspapers for Catholic parents to be able to choose Catholic education. Some parents will have a strong desire for their children to be educated in Catholic schools; others will have a strong desire for their children to be educated in Church of England schools; others will have an equally strong desire for their children to be educated in secular schools. Although we have an established Church, not everyone wants their children to be educated in schools with a religious ethos. Some people will want their children to be educated in Jewish or Muslim schools, or in specialist schools of other kinds.

The Secretary of State is conferring with the Minister. I suspect that he is recording the fact that this week he used the grant-maintained school legislation to introduce a further principle of diversity in the religious basis of

11 Mar 1998 : Column 563

education. I congratulate him on that, and I am pleased that our legislation gave him the opportunity. No doubt he has asked himself how he could have done it without that legislation.

The important point is that parents want, and ought to be able to have, the maximum opportunity to ensure that their choice for their children reflects such considerations. I am not talking about an absolute consideration--the factors that I am citing must be balanced against each other--but those factors ought to be taken into account alongside the Government's doubtless justifiable desire for infant school classes of no more than 30.

Family circumstances are another consideration. Never mind expressions of preference; family circumstances vary. Parents will often be influenced by where siblings go to school. We discussed that in Committee. Parents may want children to go to the same school as their siblings; they may also want them to go to a particular school because the sibling is at another school. That may be more convenient from the family's point of view, because the school concerned is grouped with the school of their choice rather than with their second or third choice. The location of relatives or child care is another consideration. In the real world, parents must bear all those factors in mind when choosing schools.

Finally, there are factors specific to rural areas. It was vaguely amusing to see the Minister for School Standards promoting in Committee a Bill whose effect will be to give the adjudicator power to make decisions--which are currently made by the Secretary of State--on the closure of rural schools, and to see him then, on the day before the countryside march, rush off to a television studio, dressing himself in the clothes of a friend of the countryside, to say that the power that he is transferring to the adjudicator should be transferred back to the Secretary of State.

Later in the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) will move a new clause to give effect to the Minister's policy, and I look forward to hearing his support for that policy, which he announced from Millbank tower on the day before the Millbank march--the countryside march--[Interruption.] The Millbank march is something that the Minister does quite often.

The Minister has not yet had an opportunity to table a new clause, so we have done it for him. Undoubtedly our new clause is technically flawed, but he will be able to move his own in another place, to give effect to his policy--which I merely wish to endorse. I merely wish to help ensure that he does not miss the opportunity to include it in the Bill.

In the real world, all those considerations have to be balanced against that of class size--a subject on which Ministers, when they are in a corner, betray considerable sensitivity. When the Standing Committee was debating those matters, the Minister issued a press release, which I do not think was circulated to all members of the Committee. None the less, I have--for greater accuracy, as they say--obtained a copy. It stated that

Although I am delighted for rural schools, I just wonder why that applies only in rural schools and not in urban schools. I should not have expected to have to remind

11 Mar 1998 : Column 564

the Government that a majority of people in the United Kingdom live in urban communities. Presumablythe Government's pledge applies equally to urban communities and rural communities.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers): The right hon. Gentleman will know why I referred specifically to rural schools, as the issue was raised on several occasions by himself and by other members of the Committee. The press notice to which he is referring quotes my comments in Committee. The pledge applies not only to rural schools but to all schools, but the quotations in the press notice were in response to issues raised in Committee by himself and other members of the Committee.

Mr. Dorrell: That is perfectly true. However, the Minister made considerable play in Committee of the pledge of extra money, which was to be focused on recruiting extra teachers, to ensure that the choice of parents was respected. In his comments both to the Committee and in the press release, the Minister focused that pledge directly on rural schools.

I look forward to hearing in the Minister's reply to the debate whether he is saying that there will be special protection and assistance to deal with issues in rural schools--which was the implication of his comments to the Committee and of his press release--or whether he is saying that the same principles will apply to schools, regardless of whether they are in a rural or urban community. That is an important issue, and I hope that he will address it directly in his reply.

The press release makes another point, on which I shall conclude:

The statement that it is a popular policy designed to enhance parental preference is a form of newspeak of which George Orwell would have been proud. It is simply nonsense to say that the principle is being introduced and that it will have the effect of enhancing parental preference. The reality is that it is a constraint on parental preference and it was always intended to be a constraint on parental preference.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk) indicated dissent.

Mr. Dorrell: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I shall willingly give way to him if he can explain how a limit on class size and a refusal to accept a 31st child into a class, although that may reflect the parents' preference, enhances parental preference. How does it enhance parental preference to deny parents the opportunity to put their child into the 31st place, if that is their choice and if the head teacher believes that it is consistent with the educational interests both of the 31st child and of the other 30? How does the removal of that opportunity enhance parental choice? If the hon. Gentleman wishes to argue that case, I shall give way.

Dr. Turner: During our long debates in Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister made it clear that the Government were going to make sure that the initiative was properly funded and that where parental choice was

11 Mar 1998 : Column 565

being thwarted--particularly in rural areas, by the distances that children who were the 31st child might have to travel--the Government were determined that funding would be made available properly to deliver our pledge. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain where his principled objection to a fixed figure sits, when his Government supported and enforced a fixed limit on every nursery class in the land? If his party can support a fixed limit of 26 in that respect, what is wrong with saying that a fixed limit should be observed in respect of other young children?

Mr. Dorrell: What I seek to do with the new clause is to respect the Government's electoral mandate for an infant class size of 30 and to suggest a formula whereby that can be made consistent with the other considerations which, in the real world, have to be taken into account when deciding which school an individual child is to attend. The reality, which the hon. Gentleman did not address, is that if one limits class size in all circumstances, one inhibits rather than enhances parental choice.

The Government's policy, given effect by the Bill, is that it is better for a child to be in a class of 29, in a neighbouring village rather than his or her own village, with an indifferent teacher, in a crumbling building and in a school of the wrong denomination, which was his or her parents' second-choice school, than to be in a class of 31, with an inspirational teacher, in a new building, in a school in his or her home village that is his or her parents' first-choice school and which is in the denomination of the church that the family attends. That is the Government's policy. It is no good Labour Back Benchers shaking their heads: that is the principle on which the Bill is based and the principle that will be translated into law if the Bill goes through unamended.

That is why I seek to introduce an element of flexibility into the provisions of the Bill, to give effect to what I believe should be the key principle in determining which school an individual child attends. That key principleis that, within the overall constraints of policy--I acknowledge the Government's right to do that--if the parent chooses a particular school and the head teacher accepts that that school represents the best opportunity for an individual child, if the parent is happy and the teacher is happy, it is not the Government's role to intervene and say that, even though they are happy, they should not be.

Next Section

IndexHome Page