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Mr. Laurence Robertson: I endorse everything said in this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell). I should also declare an interest, as my daughter attends a grant-maintained school. She is very proud to attend such a school, and I am very proud that she attends one.

We have a number of grant-maintained schools in Tewkesbury, and I have spent much time at them.

Mr. Bercow: Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to accept from me--having met his excellent daughter at Conservative party conferences--that she is an admirable advertisement for the continuation of grant-maintained schools?

Mr. Robertson: As they say on the television, "You may think that, but I couldn't possibly comment." Nevertheless, I thank my hon. Friend for that very kind intervention. I suspect that more unfriendly interventions will be forthcoming as I make my speech.

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I have spent much time at those grant-maintained schools, and base my remarks not only on those visits, but on my experience, some years ago, as a chairman of governors of a primary school that had about 200 pupils. At that time, primary schools of that size could not opt out; they could not apply for grant-maintained status. I tended to find that, as chairman of governors, I spent at least half my time fighting the nonsense of the socialist LEA in Bolton, and very little time doing what I was supposed to do. The headmaster found himself in a similar position.

The LEA adopted a sinister and arrogant attitude to that primary school, because it knew that, at that time, we could do nothing about it. It--and other LEAs--adopted a very different attitude to secondary schools that could opt out, because of the constant threat that those schools might leave the LEA. I do not like to use the word threat, but, when dealing with socialist LEAs, especially in the north, it was necessary to use every available weapon to run a school decently.

8.30 pm

That experience persuaded me to put pressure on the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), to allow smaller primary schools to apply for grant-maintained status. I was proud to take part in that campaign, and the Secretary of State authorised the change. I felt that smaller primary schools needed financial and managerial autonomy. The schools that have opted out have enjoyed success as a result.

The then Government wanted schools to become grant maintained because they wanted to give parents a choice about which schools their children attended. There were grant-maintained schools, Church schools and grammar schools--a range of schools--so the opinion of parents, the people who really take these decisions, mattered.

However, I have one criticism of the then Government: they made it far too difficult for schools to opt out. An enormous turnout of parents in the ballot was required. That requirement, and the terrible campaigns that LEAs carried out against schools that appeared likely to opt out, made it difficult for schools to opt out. Before any hon. Member says that there are not that many grant- maintained schools, I should say that that is hardly surprising, because there were no depths to which the LEAs would not sink to prevent schools from opting out. That is why there are not as many as there should have been.

Mr. Brady: Would my hon. Friend care to reflect on the position of many grant-maintained schools that faced sinister and unpleasant campaigns by their LEAs, which tried to oppose GM status? Many of those schools are in great fear of the prejudice that they may experience from predominantly Labour LEAs when they are forced back into the LEA sector.

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is right. Those schools do not know what will happen and they are afraid of being returned to that situation. Some disgraceful campaigns were mounted against schools that proposed to opt out.

I attended St. James's school in Farnworth, Bolton which I believe, became the second school in the country to opt out. It was interesting to watch how the LEA acted

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to try to prevent the school from doing so. It let it be known that the school might close. That made parents slightly dubious about sending their children to the school, so the rolls started falling, and the LEA then considered closing the school. The Bolton LEA thereby put the school in a position where it had no option but to opt out. The campaign that the LEA waged against the school was disgraceful. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is absolutely right.

The previous Government should have made it easier for schools to opt out, especially given the success that grant-maintained schools have had. I ask a single question. Those schools--

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman has just suggested that the grant-maintained school experiment has been some sort of success. I appreciate that this is the last gasp of an attempt to save them, but will he enlighten the House with his knowledge of evidence that demonstrates that the grant-maintained school sector has led to overall benefits? Specifically, will he draw our attention to any research that he knows of that has shown that the grant-maintained school experiment has led to a raising of academic standards?

Mr. Robertson: I can only quote the figures that I have been given. [Laughter.] Well, I shall not quote the figures that the Minister gave me because, when I did so this morning, having had them in writing from the Minister, he denied that he had given them to me--so I shall not quote the Government's figures, because I may be corrected. They may change later this evening.

However, I understand that 92 per cent. of grant-maintained schools have appointed additional staff, 91 per cent. have increased their spending on books and equipment and 54 per cent. have increased their spending on new buildings. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) suggests that I am talking only about cash. I am actually talking about what that cash bought, which seems to me to be quite important.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to those extra measurements of input, but measurements of output are also relevant. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) said, measured by examination results, by university entrance or by any of the standard criteria for academic success, grant- maintained schools are way above and beyond a success; they are a towering success. I know that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was a friend of city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools before he entered the House.

Mr. Robertson: As usual, my hon. Friend makes the point better than I could.

If, now that opted-out schools are about to lose their status, I were to ask them, "Would you, by choice, revert to your previous status under the LEA?" I am not aware that any school would choose to do so. We should listen to what those schools are saying. It is all very well for us to talk about the subject in the Chamber. Should we not listen to what the schools are saying? They opted out

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voluntarily, and they would not revert to their previous status. They have had success because they have been able to control their finances. They have more teachers, books and buildings.

Grant-maintained schools have also been a success in less tangible terms. When one walks through a grant-maintained school, one can feel its liveliness, balanced by discipline. I believe that that is unique in such schools.

Mrs. Browning: I wonder whether my hon. Friend is wondering just how wrong a Prime Minister can be. Labour Members are all gesturing from sedentary positions to suggest that everything that my hon. Friend is saying about academic standards and discipline in schools is wrong, and yet the personal preference of the Prime Minister of this land--

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): Cheap.

Mrs. Browning: It is not cheap; it is fact. It cannot be denied. If the Prime Minister of this land, who has the choice of any school that he wishes--including those in the private sector--decides to send his son to a GM school, is his judgment out of accord with that of the members of the Labour party, or is it that they are right and he is wrong? I wonder what my hon. Friend thinks of that.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful for that intervention. The Prime Minister is absolutely right to exercise his choice about which school he sends his children to--I wish them the best of success--but he is wrong to deny that choice to other children. Of course, he is only following what many other Labour Ministers have done. They have attended schools that, at a later date, they have wanted to close. It is a matter of "Do as they say and not as they have done." They have benefited from a far greater education than many Conservative Members have done, but have then wanted to close those very schools. It is hypocrisy. I am sorry that that is the case.

I spoke of the success that resulted from financial and managerial autonomy. I spoke of the intangible success of a disciplined and lively atmosphere in grant-maintained schools. That has led to the academic success that Conservative Members have mentioned.


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