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8.15 pm

That is what the new clause proposes. Given the Government's determination to remove the concept of grant-maintained schools from the statute book, the least we should do is accord schools that voted for grant-maintained status within the last 10 years the same protection that the Government are prepared to accord to grammar schools. The Government's attitude to grammar schools and grant-maintained schools is remarkably consistent. Both are successful institutions, and there is clear evidence that they have widespread parental support, but the Government are plainly opposed to both. The grant-maintained sector is uniquely exposed, however. At least the Government have said, in principle, that they will not abolish grammar schools without securing consent in a ballot.

The new clause applies principles which, as I said in Committee, I do not find hugely attractive in themselves, but which provide some protection for grammar schools. I simply ask this question: why do the Government not give grant-maintained schools, when parents have voted for GM status, the protection that they are prepared to accord to grammar schools? That is the challenge which the new clause presents to the Secretary of State. I hope that, in his reply, he will recognise this: a school that can claim in its support, first, that the system works because it delivers high standards, secondly, that it is right in principle because it reflects the principle that the right hon. Gentleman himself is introducing in education action zones, thirdly, that it is backed by parents, governors and teachers, and, fourthly, that it has already been supported in a ballot of parents is entitled to expect the protection of one of Her Majesty's Ministers. The Secretary of State should not have the power to abolish grant-maintained

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schools unless he can show that parents have changed their minds, and have voted in a ballot to reverse the decision that they made in a ballot only a few years ago.

Mrs. May: My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) has outlined the ultimate irony that lies behind the Bill very well. It is clear that the Bill is fundamentally about changing the framework of schools. Whatever the Government say about its being a Bill to raise standards, most of it is about school structures. It is about changing the framework of schools; it is about development plans for organisation committees. It is not about standards in themselves, but about the structure within which schools operate, and the sort of schools that we have under local education authorities and education action zones.

The irony is that, in two ways, the Bill discriminates against grant-maintained schools--as my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood pointed out. On the one hand, the Government say, "Fine. We may not want to create new grammar schools"--we disagree with that, but it is the Government's position--"but if parents have said that they want grammar schools to stay, we will allow it. As for grant-maintained schools, no thank you--goodbye."

As for education action zones, the Government envisage certain powers in an innovative new world. The Minister for School Standards confirmed that in a debate on another new clause. The Government look ahead to the provision of education in the new millennium. They want radical thinking from schools and, to bring it about, they will set up a structure enabling schools to free themselves from LEAs, to apply different terms and positions to the employment of teachers and to have extra, favoured funding. Those are the principles that lie behind education action zones. However, the principles that schools should be free from local education authorities and have the freedom to say "No, we do not want to retain standard terms and conditions for teachers", are precisely the same principles that were applied to grant- maintained schools.

The Government are saying, "Fine, we accept that schools might not want to be under the local education authority and might want to have new thinking. We think that that's a good idea, but they can do it only if they do it under the structure that we set up and not under the previous structure. If it is a Labour idea we like it, but we don't like the idea if it was introduced by the previous Government, despite the fact that they are exactly the same."

There is also a great sadness behind the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: It is small-minded.

Mrs. May: Yes, that is an excellent description of the Bill. In Standing Committee, we were told that the Bill is about looking forward to the new millennium, about free thinking and about saying that the structure of schools under a local education authority is not right. Let us make no bones about it: the Bill will lead to the demise of local education authorities. By establishing education action zones, Ministers are saying that they want to abolish LEAs, but that they do not want to come out and say so. They will create a new structure and abolish LEAs by subterfuge.

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In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), made it absolutely clear that the Government think that, very soon, there may be 400 education action zones. The Government have created the new structure not to deal with failing schools but, ultimately, to take over the education structure of the United Kingdom. That is how the Government perceive the way forward to the new millennium.

Dr. George Turner: Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that the GM experiment was divisive and that it--unlike action zones--fostered competition rather than co-operation? Despite what she says, by no means will action zones be anti-LEA. They are a way forward. Now we shall be able to get on with raising standards, rather than continuing the sterile debate of the past 10 years on the GM experiment.

Mrs. May: That intervention was up to the hon. Gentleman's usual standard. He said that it was divisive to give a school GM status, but he thinks that it will not be divisive if schools band together as education action zones and receive extra Government funding. He has defeated his own argument.

I should like to disabuse the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), and suggest that he think through very carefully the implications of the provisions that he has voted for in the Bill. He should spend some time thinking about the likely ultimate result of the education action zone experiment. In Committee, Ministers said that, in the new millennium, the modern school structure and modern education in modern Britain would be education action zone led and not local education authority led. Ministers made that quite clear in our Standing Committee debates, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should go away and have another look at those proceedings. Ministers' statements on that point were very interesting.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk and other Labour Members have voted for the concept of schools being freed from local education authorities, but they are saying that schools can do that only if they are in an education action zone and are not grant maintained. Grant-maintained schools were very successful precisely because they gave power to schools to make decisions on their own future and on how to provide education in those schools, without being under an LEA's authoritative hand.

Mr. Bercow: Is not the extraordinary illogicality of the Government's position that failing schools can be freed from the authority of local education authorities, but that successful schools cannot be so freed bizarre, even by new Labour standards?

Mrs. May: The Government have moved forward and accepted our argument, as they will allow successful schools to become part of an education action zone and thereby free from the local education authority. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right in saying that Ministers believe that, whereas groups of failing schools should be given those freedoms, successful grant-maintained schools must have those freedoms removed.

Mr. Hayes: Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, by any other name, the provision is an insult to local

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education authorities? Our local education authorities--be they successful or unsuccessful--are being told that they are incapable of running schools. Are local education authorities being told that the democratic accountability that they offer is no longer relevant? Moreover, are we being told by Ministers that differential funding, which various Labour Members have argued against in this debate, is now acceptable?

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. I think that every Labour Member needs to think through the Bill's consequences for local education authorities and the Government's views on them.

I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that there is an even greater illogicality in the Government's position. The Government have said--the Minister for School Standards has confirmed it in response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn)--that if a group of grant-maintained schools wishes to join in an education action zone, it will be able to do so. The Government are, therefore, saying that a group of grant-maintained schools can form an education action zone--with freedom from the local education authority and, should they wish, from the national curriculum, and with powers on how to employ their staff--but that they cannot have those powers or freedom if they maintain grant-maintained status.

The Government are interested only in abolishing something called "a grant-maintained school". They are interested not in the principles underlying grant- maintained schools or in how grant-maintained schools can and have raised standards, but only in the name "grant-maintained school". It is sheer envy of that name. Ministers believe that it is perfectly acceptable for the Government to allow education action zones to have extra funding to free themselves from local education authorities because they will not be called grant-maintained schools. That is what that provision in the Bill is all about.

I suggest that the Minister and the Secretary of State should themselves think through the illogicality of saying no to grant-maintained schools, but saying yes to the very powers that grant-maintained schools provided.

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