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Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend displays characteristic courtesy in giving way on this point. Does he agree that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) imposes far too great a burden of responsibility on grant-maintained schools? It is surely not necessary for grant-maintained schools, which constitute a tiny minority of maintained schools, to show that they have improved standards in all other schools. In order to retain GM schools, we must simply demonstrate that they do not damage other schools.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Interventions should not be speeches: they should be very brief.

Mr. Brady: I thank my hon. Friend. I agree that it would be unfair to place such a responsibility on any one

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grant-maintained school. The argument advanced by the hon. Member for Bath--like those put by Labour Members--reveals a manifest failure genuinely to grasp the importance and benefit of competition. That fact emerged earlier by way of intervention. Grant-maintained schools have played, and continue to play, a critical role by setting a gold standard to which other schools can aspire. Amidst all the rhetoric, the Minister for School Standards occasionally recognises that fact by saying that he wishes to bring all schools to the standard of grant-maintained schools.

However, the reality will be entirely the opposite. There will be a process of levelling down--removing the successful grant-maintained schools and returning to a mixture of local authority control, in one form or another, which will erode standards. My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood revealed that 30 of the top 100 improving schools are grant maintained. That is further compelling evidence of the key role that grant-maintained schools can play in raising education standards in this country. It is a tragedy that the Government will prevent that progression.

New clause 4 will not only greatly improve the Bill from a technical point of view, but be a vital step towards a fairer approach on the part of the Government. It is impossible to justify the new Government's decision. Parents have voted--in some instances by overwhelming majorities--for grant-maintained status, but the Government have decided to wave them aside and push legislation through the House of Commons.

Dr. George Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brady: Yes, with some reluctance.

Dr. Turner: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there was a vote on the policy which was thrashed out before the general election? The electorate gave the Government the mandate to introduce the compromise that was trailed in the White Paper and which is brought forward in this Bill.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman reveals his Stalinist tendencies. Although he may have enjoyed the brief period of success thrust upon him by the election result last year, some parts of the country did not vote for the kind of policies that he supports.

In my constituency--where the electors clearly did not vote for the Labour manifesto--the figures speak for themselves. Parents wish to retain grant-maintained schools in my constituency. At my old school, Altrincham grammar school, 78 per cent. of the parents voted and 75 per cent. voted in favour of grant-maintained status. At the Ashton upon Mersey school, 73 per cent. of parents voted and 76 per cent. of them voted for grant-maintained status. At the Blessed Thomas Holford school, 64 per cent. of parents voted, but 84 per cent. of them voted in favour of grant-maintained status.

There is a very real demand for grant-maintained schools in my constituency. Such schools were, and are, popular and they are doing a good job. They were always good schools, but they have improved dramatically since they became grant maintained. The quality of grant-maintained schools shines through not only in

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selective educational areas. That is an important point as Labour Members often try to attack grant-maintained schools on the false premise that they are all selective.

I will refer once again, as I did in Committee, to a school of which I am particularly proud--Ashton upon Mersey school, where 23 per cent. of the pupils have free school meals. It is by no means in an area of great social standing or privilege, but it achieves a remarkable outcome for any school. Possibly--the Minister may be able to correct me--it is the only school in the country that has twice achieved an outstanding award from the Office for Standards in Education and a charter mark, and has recently been made a sports college. It is not a selective or grammar school, but a classic and fine example of a grant-maintained school--in this instance a secondary modern, which is using the freedom to control its own resources, decide its own policy and create its own ethos to generate a proud and effective school which serves the local community well.

Ministers would be wise to reflect on the lessons that can be learnt from schools such as Ashton upon Mersey and countless other grant-maintained schools, and they would be wise to remember the popular mandate that many GM schools received from parents who voted for them in overwhelming numbers.

Mr. St. Aubyn: We have heard some excellent speeches from Opposition Members in praise of grant-maintained schools. As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said, it is depressing that we have heard little in response from the Labour side--not even a gracious acknowledgement of how successful those schools have been. Anyone who is interested in raising academic standards has surely to begin with that acknowledgement.

I ask the Government to acknowledge another home truth; that academic excellence is for the few, not the many. Not all of us can have a first class degree. In fact, not all students should go to university and not all school leavers should try for A-levels. Different approaches and levels of education are appropriate to different individuals and if we accept the logic of that, we accept that inevitably, in a fair education system, society will invest more money in some children than in others and yet it will still be a fair system. If we accept that, we are not outraged by the idea that the resources devoted to some schools are slightly higher pro rata than those devoted to others.

The real test of the record of grant-maintained schools is not whether they have achieved a marginal increase in the resources that go into them, but how they have achieved far more than a marginal increase and improvement in the academic success of pupils.

In the area I represent, we have a number of grant-maintained schools. They are not selective, as we have a non-selective system throughout our county, yet they have consistently achieved outstanding academic results. Today, they are asking what they have done wrong. Why are they being forced into the yoke built by this Government in the Bill, which will force them to conform to the branding exercise that new Labour is carrying out?

As my hon. Friends have said, we know that the Government accept the principles of GM schools. Indeed, on 5 February I recall the Minister for School Standards

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telling us how he intended to build on the experience of those schools. Welcome though that was at the time, as with much that we hear from the Minister it was an ambiguous statement. So much has been reserved in the Bill to be controlled by regulation and decree after it is enacted that it is deeply ambiguous throughout. Conservative Members may be in for a pleasant surprise, whereas some Labour Members may be in for a shock, when education action zones are extended to include clusters of GM schools that know how to take advantage of them.

Our difficulty with the Bill is that, because it will give so many discretionary powers to Ministers, it gives little away to hon. Members who are being asked to agree to it. The new clause would tie down the democratic accountability that is needed for any legislation that introduces as many new powers as this Bill does.

9 pm

As I said, there is a non-selective system in Guildford, yet the achievement of the schools there is significant. Recently, I met the heads of GM schools in the area, who asked me why they should choose foundation status and what it would achieve, as it would mark them out as former GM schools and would not provide them with their previous independence, either financially or from LEA governors.

Fortunately, there is a Conservative LEA in my area. The response of people throughout the country who are in favour of GM schools will undoubtedly be reflected in local election results--more and more local authorities will return to Conservative control as people realise that that is the only way in which they can be sure of the approach to local education that is represented by the excellence achieved by GM schools.

Because Guildford has a Conservative LEA, I can reassure the heads of GM schools in my area, but I understand their concerns for schools where there is not a Conservative LEA. They are worried that, in an area that has a Labour LEA, foundation status will be used as a mechanism to discriminate against GM schools and that a political project will be launched to try to force those schools to give up foundation status and return to the mainstream. If that project succeeded, it could be heralded as a political victory for the Government when in fact it would be a cynical exercise in undermining the morale and success of some of the best schools in the country.

Earlier, we were asked to provide evidence of the success of GM schools. Last November, The Independent published research showing that barely 5 per cent. of schools exhibited an improvement in standards for each of the previous four years. Of that 5 per cent., one in three were GM schools. Moreover, as we heard, eight of the top 20 schools in the country are grant maintained. There can be no doubt about GM schools' ability to raise standards.

Because of the Government's retrograde step, GM schools are being denied the opportunity to build partnerships. Labour Members often talk about the need for local partnerships; GM schools are ideally placed to build them. They could show other schools in the area how to build forms of co-operation that go way beyond what the LEA can offer through its bureaucratic and stratified systems and means of delivery. Why should not local schools go out to tender in a group bid for financial

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and auditing services? Why should not groups of schools pool their transport or sports facilities? Very few schools adopt such an approach, but if any group of schools is capable of doing so and developing these ideas, it is GM schools. They should do it because, in doing so, they would produce a better quality service that releases resources to put into education.

It is a great regret that, as a result of the passing of the Bill, there will be no opportunity to develop the independence of GM schools in setting their capital budgets. It was a matter of resentment to the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) that GM schools had some freedom on their capital budgets, but let us not forget the context in which that freedom was given. The capital spending of GM schools was outside the public sector borrowing requirement. We learnt only by chance in Committee that the Government had allowed that favourable status to be lost. It appears that they are incapable of doing anything to resurrect it. They appear to be happy to see £11 million of capital spending by GM schools come back within the PSBR and to deny such schools the opportunity, under whatever status they might be granted, to regain that freedom on their capital budgets.

The Minister told us in Committee that his Department had examined the problem and was unable to come up with any answers, but surely the fact was that it was unable to come up with any answer that would meet the Government's objective of getting rid of GM schools.

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