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Mr. Bercow: A number of my hon. Friends spoke eloquently of the success of grant-maintained schools. In each case, they cited schools in their constituencies that have performed, and continue to perform, exceptionally well. To date, none of the evidence that my hon. Friends adduced in support of the proposition has been disputed by any hon. Member.

It should be placed on the record that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), whose long-standing hostility to grant-maintained schools is well understood, seeks to obscure the realities by posing a challenge to grant-maintained schools that it is wholly unreasonable for the House to expect them to fulfil. The point bears examination. He asked in all sincerity whether successful grant-maintained schools had contributed to the greater success of all schools. The implication was that, unless they could demonstrate that they had, their raison d'etre would disappear.

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I disagree. It is clear that these schools have succeeded by themselves. I have four in my constituency that are dramatic beacons of excellence. They are thriving at all levels, including key stage 2, GCSE and A-level, in providing facilities, in satisfying their requirements in sport, in achieving excellence in pastoral care, and so on. Each and every one of them is a success.

If the hon. Member for Bath challenges me to prove that those schools have also raised the standards of all other maintained schools in Buckinghamshire, I will readily concede that I cannot--of course I cannot--but equally, and more important, he cannot prove that successful grant-maintained schools in Buckinghamshire have in any way damaged the educational attainments of other schools. That is the point. The onus of proof is not on a grant-maintained school to demonstrate that, as well as educating successfully its own pupils, it has managed somehow to achieve the extraordinary feat of educating successfully pupils of other schools. At most, all that is necessary is for it to be able to demonstrate that it has not undermined the quality of education provided in other institutions, and on that I very much doubt whether the hon. Gentleman will be able to provide evidence.

It is uncharitable of the hon. Gentleman in a sense to smear grant-maintained schools by requiring of them achievements that he would not require of ordinary maintained schools. The record of grant-maintained schools compares favourably with that of other schools. I would be no more likely to assert that all state schools should be grant maintained than any other Opposition Member. I have never argued that case. Many such schools do not wish to be. However, many have chosen to be grant maintained and, having escaped--I use that word advisedly--local education authority control, scarcely any of those of which I am aware now wish to go back into that control.

I am a fair-minded fellow, charitable even--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]--as my hon. Friends' ready enthusiasm in greeting my observations testifies. I am not making a party political observation. I could point to all the examples of Labour local education authorities that have been so incompetent, malign and manifestly unsuitable that schools have rushed to escape their clutches--but I will not.

I point instead to the schools in my constituency and elsewhere in the county of Buckinghamshire that have opted to become self-governing outwith the control of Buckinghamshire county council. I am happy to describe and to criticise again and again the outrageous antics and consecutive failures year after year of left-wing education authorities, and I point to their passion for political correctness.

I make no such charges against Buckinghamshire county council. It is an estimable local education authority, so schools in my patch are not trying to escape the council's control because it is extremist or politically correct, is opposed to standards or has a track record of failure. None of those charges would be true. Indeed, the opposite is true in every case.

The county as a whole is dramatically successful, and many of its thriving schools are within LEA control. Those that have opted to become free of that control--to go their own way, make their own decisions, allocate their

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own funds, organise their own priorities and determine their own successes--have, without exception, upon my visiting them or via correspondence, told me that they welcome that state of affairs and wish it to continue.

That leads me to my second and final point.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me, especially before he moves on to his second point--for which I can scarcely contain my anticipation. He has made an eloquent case for the excellence of grant-maintained status, in that, even in such a good local authority area as Buckinghamshire, schools still see its value. Grant-maintained status is not a negative thing, adopted merely to escape from bad local education authorities.

I have an even better example of the quality and merit of grant-maintained status. Two independent schools in my constituency have opted for grant-maintained status, because they believe that they will continue to enjoy the freedom that they had as independent schools, while being able to give the same quality of education to people regardless of ability to pay. Is it not a disgrace that the Government seek to destroy that state of affairs?

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Perversely, the Government could end up by expanding the fee-paying sector as a result of their dogmatic hostility to the self-governing sector of the British education system. They would not want to do that, and they did not anticipate or plan for it, but that could be the outcome.

It comes down to a question of democracy, and whether people have a right to have their schools run by people whom they do elect and can remove, or whether they should suffer the fate, of which the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) regularly reminds us, of affairs being run by people whom they do not elect and cannot remove.

Let there be ballots; let people have a say; let the cross be placed on the paper to determine the outcome. If that can happen for grammar schools, I ask the Secretary of State why it cannot happen for grant-maintained schools.

I have said before, and I say again, that Conservatives can be forgiven for thinking that, just conceivably, the reason why the Government do not want ballots--

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): Get on with it.

Mr. Bercow: No, I am afraid that I shall have to extend the hon. Lady's pain, because the embarrassment that the point causes the Government needs to be emphasised.

The reason why the Government do not want ballots is that they know that, in almost every instance, they--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) has clearly had her day and it is obvious that she is suffering from an illness from which I hope she will in due course recover. The Government will lose and we will win. Let democracy speak. Allow the parents to vote.

9.30 pm

Mr. Don Foster: It is a charitable person who seeks to find some good in even the most misguided of people. I enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for South

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Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), but I disagreed with it fundamentally. However, I agreed with one point, and that was his reference to the need for us to have high expectations of the children in our schools and of the schools themselves. He was right to draw our attention to that. I suspect that, in the past, some LEAs have not had high enough expectations of their schools, and that some teachers have not had high enough expectations of their pupils.

I even find some good--very little, but some--in the contribution of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). The hon. Gentleman at least made the point that there are some good grant-maintained schools, and I agree. There are many good grant-maintained schools. My constituency has two excellent grant-maintained schools--Beechen Cliff school and Oldfield school. They are both excellent schools with excellent staff doing a good job for the pupils whom they serve.

To say that there are good grant-maintained schools does not mean that grant-maintained status itself is a good thing. The one other thing which I share with the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings and for Buckingham is a disagreement with the Government's plans, but my disagreement comes from a completely different direction. Both hon. Gentlemen and the official Opposition oppose what the Government are doing because they want grant-maintained schools to continue. My party and I are clear in that we have no desire whatever to see that continuation. Our disappointment with the Government is that, instead of doing as we would wish them to do, which is to bring grant maintained schools back into the light strategic planning framework of LEAs, they are continuing to give those schools a sop by allowing them to stand outside the LEA framework. We believe that that is wrong.

At least the Government have recognised the need to get rid of grant-maintained status, and we are delighted that they have done that. As I said earlier in an intervention, grant-maintained status has not been popular. It was born out of Mrs. Thatcher's handbag back in 1988. We were told that it would be extremely popular and that, before long, the vast majority of schools would be grant maintained. That did not prove to be the case, despite the numerous bribes that were given to schools to become grant maintained. Year after year, the Tory Government came up with another new attempt to persuade schools to become grant-maintained, even requiring every governing body to consider annually whether to become grant maintained.

The one bribe that grant-maintained schools were given was the additional sums of money. When official Opposition Members tell us about some of the successes of some grant-maintained schools, the House should never forget that that is hardly surprising, as schools were given significantly increased sums to enable them to carry out the various things that led to some of those successes.


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