Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Byers: I am reluctant to intervene because the House wants to make progress, but the hon. Gentleman has been misleading in his description of what I said in the Standing Committee. For the record, he should accurately reflect the fact that the decision was taken by the Office for National Statistics. I made it clear that the Government were making representations for it to change its decision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is an accurate reflection of what was said in Committee, unlike what he has just said.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I believe that there is a misunderstanding. I was trying to explain to the Minister that he would have immense difficulty changing the ruling of the National Audit Office precisely because he had constrained his freedom of manoeuvre by the way in which he has designed the Bill.

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that the National Audit Office has nothing to do with the matter, which involves the Office for National Statistics. He needs to be aware that the ruling affects grant-maintained schools as it applies to their present status, regardless of the new framework in the Bill.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I stand corrected, but I must point out to the Minister that he has an opportunity in the Bill to create a structure for GM schools that would still be recognised as providing them with a capital budget outside the PSBR. He has failed to take that opportunity.

Mr. Blunkett: I need to put it on record that the House does not have the facility to overturn the Officefor National Statistics. It is important for the

11 Mar 1998 : Column 640

hon. Gentleman's sake and the sake of his Front-Bench colleagues, who know that what I have said is correct, to state that we are not in a position to do that.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to correct the impression created by the Secretary of State. We are talking not about overruling the Office for National Statistics but about creating a new structure into which GM schools could be fitted that would satisfy the requirements of that office and enable the favourable capital budget treatment to continue--but that would involve maintaining the independence and integrity of GM schools, which is anathema to the Government. As a result, the capital spending of schools in general and former GM schools in particular will be constrained in a way that is due purely to dogma and the Labour party's blatant approach to GM schools.

The Bill is all about conformity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, there is a contradiction between the Government's desire to attack individual grant-maintained schools and the possibility that, through the education action zone, they may be prepared to sanction a cluster of GM schools. The reason for the contradiction is that the Government seek conformity. Through conformity, they may achieve some improvement in the performance of the laggards--the schools that are performing least well--but they may at the same time undermine the spirit, energy and enterprise of the best schools and thus the service that our education system should provide for the best of our children.

Mr. Hayes: New clause 4 addresses the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Bill. The Government are sending out a confused message about their appreciation of the role of the local education authority, individual schools and the Secretary of State.

I do not argue with those who say that LEAs should take a strong, perhaps even a dominant, role. That is a logical and acceptable position. I do not argue with those who take the view that all schools should be encouraged to opt out, that LEAs should wither away and that schools should work independently. I do not even argue with those who say that the entire system should be governed centrally--that there should be an all-powerful Department for Education and Employment, that LEAs should cease to exist in all but name and that powers should be removed from the schools. All those positions are at least coherent.

The problem with the Government's approach is that it is a mix of all those positions. The Bill gives the Secretary of State more powers than any Secretary of State has enjoyed before. Labour Members who complained about the centralising tendencies of Conservative Governments over the past 20 years would do well to consider the new powers that the Bill gives the Secretary of State in a range of areas that would have scarce been thought of by Conservative Secretaries of State. Had such powers been proposed before the general election, they would have been roundly condemned by Labour Members.

The Secretary of State is a winner out of all this. LEAs take back some extra responsibilities, but their role is confused. We have already heard of the confusion about education action zones and their relationship with LEAs, and there are other contradictions in respect of the role of LEAs. The schools are, by and large, losers--and none more so than grant-maintained schools.

11 Mar 1998 : Column 641

I shall deal with grant-maintained schools in the context of that general confusion about the future management of education. There has already been some talk in the debate about academic success, which I shall not repeat. I shall not take hon. Members on a travelogue around Windsor, Guildford, Altrincham and other fine places. I mean no disrespect, but I shall not focus on interesting schools in bizarre parts of the country, or bizarre schools in interesting parts of the country.

Given that we all accept that grant-maintained schools have achieved excellence in academic performance, I want to try to analyse the reasons for that success. Even the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has acknowledged that in GCSE results, university entrance and A-level results, grant-maintained schools have performed disproportionately well. The question is why.

The answer can be summed up simply. It is about liberty, which breeds confidence; confidence, which breeds higher expectations; and higher expectations, which breed success. If there is one thing that my experience in education has taught me, it is that higher expectations are the key to improving educational performance. That are precisely what liberation from the LEA delivered.

I have no prejudice about that; I say it on the basis of my conversations with heads and teachers from grant-maintained schools all over the country. All of them--including those who would not vote Conservative--conclude that liberty has bred a spirit of energy and enterprise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) said. That intangible matter of ethos has changed the expectations of schools, staff, parents and pupils, and raised standards. The new spirit, energy and liberty is at risk from the Government's policy, and that is a cause of great regret and sadness.

9.15 pm

I said that I would not give the House a travelogue, but I want to say something about a particular school in my constituency--I would be condemned roundly if I did not. The grant-maintained Sir John Gleed girls' school is in Spalding in Lincolnshire which, I am pleased to say, retains a selective system of education. I am a grammar school boy; I make no bones about the fact that I believe strongly in selection.

Sir John Gleed girls' school is a secondary modern in a town with a good grammar school for girls that is taking a significant and growing proportion of the brighter girls in Spalding, yet it is achieving results equal to or better than many of the comprehensive schools in other parts of Lincolnshire. I was lucky enough to distribute the prizes at the Gleed last year and I can tell you that its success is largely about expectation, ethos, energy and enterprise. It is largely about what is expected of the girls who go to the school--a school which, bear in mind, has many children with learning difficulties. It is a secondary modern that takes a mixed catchment. I can tell you--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. I think the hon. Gentleman means that he can tell the House.

Mr. Hayes: I can tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker--and through you, the House--that the school is a testament to the fact that grant-maintained schools that are

11 Mar 1998 : Column 642

non-selective, that deal with difficult catchments and that have no great advantages, can achieve outstanding results. The school has improved consistently over five years, with none of the apparent advantages mentioned by the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) and for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard).

The school is joined to another secondary modern--not just on the same site, but in the same building--which is not grant maintained; Sir John Gleed boys' school. It is an excellent school, but it is not as yet achieving the results that the girls' school is achieving. This is not about new buildings, greater capital investment or some disproportionate funding mechanism that gives undue and unreasonable advantage to the school; it is about spirit, enterprise, energy and liberty--it is about being grant maintained.

There will be those--imperialists always say this--who say that the schools would have been better off under LEA control. There will be those who make light of the intangible concepts I have described. Having visited grant-maintained schools not just in my constituency, but all over Britain, I have scarcely found one that would willingly give up that status. I have scarcely found a head teacher who would honestly say he regretted going grant maintained--even those who initially had reservations, who were not natural supporters and who were not Conservatives but socialists or Liberals. That is why they are so concerned and bitter about the proposals.

With a degree of empiricism, I can genuinely say that grant-maintained status has been a success. Given that empiricism, it is hard to imagine why a fair-minded and objective Government would want to snuff out that success--but that is precisely the prospect we have before us tonight. It is not, I am happy to say, a proposal with which I wish to be associated.

Given the initial failure of this confused and mixed-up Bill, I look forward to the Government clarifying their position on the future of education as they perceive it; clarifying how they see the role of LEAs and how they will develop; clarifying how they see the freedom of individual schools developing and, of course, clarifying what direction needs to emanate from the Government.

The Bill does none of those things. It is a poor start. Ultimately, because we all want a good education for our children, in a spirit of generosity I hope that the Government will do considerably better in the future.


Next Section

IndexHome Page