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What the previous Government did was to cut the generality of funding for all schools and reallocate it to

11 Mar 1998 : Column 649

some schools, and then claim credit for the ability of those schools to use the money--wisely, I accept--to enhance children's education. That is fine, but let us do the same for every school.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), in an interesting intervention, said that he wanted to celebrate the fact that grant-maintained schools had more books. I tell you what I want to do, Mr. Deputy Speaker: I want to celebrate the fact that, following our allocation of £23 million, every school in England now has more books. We are talking about £1,000 per school. Let us do for all our schools what Conservative Members want to do for only some schools.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I will not give way for the moment. I want to make some progress. I have sat here long enough listening to the waffle of Conservative Members; it is time to deal with some of that waffle head on.

I celebrate the work that many grant-maintained schools have done. I celebrate the improvement that they have brought about for children. I have no intention of damaging their ability to deliver high standards; I want to spread the practice further. It is ridiculous to suggest that, because four of the 18 failing schools that were named in the summer were GM schools, GM schools are a failure. It is as ridiculous to suggest that as it is to suggest that the fact that 80 schools did extraordinarily well proves that the status of a school, rather than its staff, management and direction, brings about such improvements.

Conservative Members know that that is true. They know that that is what is happening in schools. They need only take the word of the chief inspector. Such improvements are self-generated: they are a result of the direction taken by a school, of the quality of teachers, of the leadership given by the head and of high expectations. Of course dynamism is an element, but it is the dynamism within a school, not the status of that school, that makes the difference.

That is why we are driving forward the standards agenda. It is why we established the standards unit. It is why there will be a literacy and then a numeracy programme for all primary schools. It is the reason for the extra resources--the substantial investment in greater specialism. It is why education action zones will transform people's chances.

Mr. Hayes: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I shall in a moment.

Do hon. Members want to hear what those in charge of grant-maintained schools really think? I respect the representatives of those schools, who have consistently and constructively helped to ensure that the transfer is smooth, rational and sensible. A letter sent yesterday by the grant-maintained joint monitoring group states:

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    The group was particularly impressed by the Government's determination to resist any attempt to undermine the status of foundation category. It said:

    "We also support Ministerial statements that 'schools control schools' and that financial delegation should reflect the current GM model."

The group said that because we have repeatedly made it clear that schools control schools. We have made it clear that the fact that schools will no longer be unfairly funded, that they will be part of a collaborative, co-operative admissions policy and that there will be wider accountability does not detract from their ability to deliver high standards.

Right across the board in the United Kingdom, people are acknowledging what happened and what can happen. Let us consider Steven Norris, who was a Minister in the previous regime. On the radio this morning, he said:

The whole country is ashamed of what the previous Government did, and the whole country is behind us in ensuring that we unite the education service on standards, not structure, and on children, not segregation; and in ensuring that all of us can be proud of our education system, wherever we live and wherever those children go.

Mrs. Browning: As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said earlier in the debate, new clause 4 was perhaps a last attempt--certainly in the House--to preserve the status quo for grant-maintained schools. We have heard today the anomalies in the Government's thinking on giving parents choice and on listening to what governing bodies and teachers want. Although Ministers support a ballot on the retention of existing grammar schools, they want to deprive existing GM schools of the same principle. Perhaps that is at the core of their thinking. There is little principle in their thinking, but much dogma.

In its manifesto, the Labour party said:

The Secretary of State has also just read a letter of endorsement. However, it is plain to every hon. Member who visits grant-maintained schools--I visited one this week, and I shall visit another tomorrow--that GM schools are so frightened that, at the stroke of a pen, they will lose their GM status, that they cling to the idea of being offered foundation status. Although we all understand why they cling to that idea, the offer is a form of intimidation that will come back to haunt the Labour party after standards decline because of the demise of GM schools, and after connivance at a ballot automatically results in the end of grammar schools, once legislation is in place.

No principle was attached to the Government's statements in this debate. The Labour party and the Secretary of State simply have a long-held belief that, although excellence in schools is appropriate to include in their glossy brochures, the excellent results produced by GM schools should be discounted. For the Government, excellence is not measured in results but is based on their prejudices. They believe that GM schools--and the ethos of those schools and the excellent results that they achieve--should be abolished.

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As Opposition Members have said in the debate, it is extraordinary that the very qualities possessed by GM schools--the freedom and flexibility that have produced their excellent results--which the Government will take away from them, are the qualities that Ministers believe will ensure the success of education action zones.

In its manifesto, the Labour party clearly stated that education action zones will

We know that if schools are part of an education action zone, they can openly search on the market for teachers and head teachers; they can disallow the existing conditions of pay and employment for existing staff; they can adopt their own curriculum; and they can attract money from the private sector. They can do all the things that GM schools can currently do, yet, for some pernicious reason, the Government want to deprive GM schools--

Ms Squire indicated dissent.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is what education action zones will do. She knows that; she was present in Committee. Extraordinarily, although those methods, systems, freedoms and flexibilities have a proven track record, and although the Government believe that they have been seen to work, they have taken them away from one group of schools--and now, suddenly, they are to introduce them into another group of schools. There is no logic or principle underlying that decision.

The Secretary of State listed all the extra money that the Government were pouring into education--money for this, money for that. In the county of Devon, where I must this weekend respond to more than 30 pieces of correspondence received this week from schools and parish councils, people are not facing all the wonders of new Labour, of modern Britain, of super-school Britain or whatever other slogan the Secretary of State cares to choose; they are facing cuts. This year, council tax bills in Devon are to increase by 19.4 per cent., yet throughout the county there are to be cuts in the classroom.

The Secretary of State must learn that all the sloganising and glossy brochures in the world mean nothing. I advise him and his colleagues, instead of spending their time in Millbank tower, to get out into the country--as we are doing--to visit schools, and to talk to the head teachers who, this financial year, are confronted with real-terms cuts in the classroom. Those cuts will be felt especially in GM schools when the Bill receives Royal Assent.

The Secretary of State is in good company because, like him, the Liberal Democrats have a long track record of wanting to abolish grant-maintained schools. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat chairman of education in Devon had a letter published in The Times Educational Supplement, saying that GM schools would lose teachers. However, teachers will become redundant as a result of the Bill .

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I remind Labour Members and Liberal Democrat Members who said that few schools took up the option of GM status after a certain date, why that was. What happened when Labour or the Liberal Democrats, or a coalition of both, took control of an LEA? Whenever any governing body or any group of parents wanted to engage in a democratic ballot on GM status, they faced the might and opposition of a propaganda campaign by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. "Focus" newsletters were popped through every parent's door, saying why their child's school should not become grant maintained.

When the Labour party was in opposition--[Interruption.] I shall not mention the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson); he need have no fear of that. The Labour party, in opposition, was supported in its campaign by the trade unions--especially the National Union of Teachers--which ensured that they obtained the name and address of every parent in a school when a ballot was in prospect. They published propaganda and made jolly sure that people were intimidated, and that a democratic ballot did not take place. We know, therefore, what the Labour Government really think about parents' free choice.

Extraordinarily, since the general election, the Secretary of State has granted GM status to some schools. What a cynical exercise, when he well knew that he was about to oversee their demise by means of the Bill. I hope that, in government, the Labour party will learn before too long that democracy through the ballot box, which Labour Members constantly talk about, extends further than the ballot box on 1 May 1997. Parents will speak. Parents will want to vote. If Labour Members deny them the opportunity to exercise their preference for grant-maintained schools, the fact will come back to haunt them in another ballot.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:--

The House divided: Ayes 129, Noes 327.

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