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Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me prior sight of this statement, and prior knowledge of the content of the Green Paper from The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday People, The Independent on Sunday, the Daily Mail, various other newspapers, the BBC, ITN, Sky, Radio 4, and other broadcast media.

There can be no doubt about what has brought the right hon. Gentleman to the House to make this announcement--panic. The Government have failed to deliver on education, and the Secretary of State knows it. After four years, the Labour Government's education policy is failing, and has been put on special measures.

The Secretary of State knows that, under the Government, class sizes in secondary schools have risen, their targets on exclusions have undermined discipline in classrooms, as confirmed by Ofsted, and they have stifled the energy and enthusiasm of our teachers by burdening them with red tape and paperwork--a directive a day since the beginning of last year.

The Government have presided over a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention that has left schools up and down the country without sufficient staff, and has done serious harm to the education of tens of thousands of children. What is the Government's answer to those problems? This morning the Prime Minister pledged to increase the share of national income spent on education in the next Parliament--exactly the same pledge that he gave before the last Parliament, and the same pledge on which he has failed to deliver in this Parliament.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, over the current Parliament, the Government will have spent an average of 4.6 per cent. of gross domestic product a year on education, compared to the average of 5 per cent. spent by the previous Conservative Government? Will he confirm that this Government have thus failed to deliver their 1997 manifesto commitment to spend a greater proportion of national income on education than did the

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last Conservative Government? The right hon. Gentleman has not delivered on that pledge; why should we believe him this time?

Now there are more pledges in the Green Paper published today. There is to be diversity in secondary education, businesses are to take over failing schools, head teachers are to be given greater management freedom from local education authorities. Obviously, we welcome the language and rhetoric of many of the proposals in the Green Paper--at least, those that have been cut and pasted from the Conservative party website--but why should we believe the Secretary of State's pledge on diversity, when he abolished grant-maintained schools? Why should we believe his pledge to bring in businesses to run schools, when the Government have failed to provide that in education action zones? Why should we believe his pledge on freedom for head teachers, when he continues to let local education authorities top-slice money from our schools?

We particularly welcome the right hon. Gentleman's acceptance of a principle we have long advocated: that the private sector should be allowed to take over management of some schools. Will he confirm that he has abandoned his previous dogmatic stance, and that private-sector companies will now be able to make a profit running state schools?

Teachers are bogged down by bureaucracy under this Government. Given his words this afternoon, will the Secretary of State apologise to the teaching profession for the lack of trust that he has shown it over the last four years, for the increased work load he has imposed on it, and for the way in which he has driven tens of thousands of teachers out of the profession?

What is new in the Government's package today? It must be the decision this morning that they suddenly favour selection. All those people--some of whom may well be sitting on the Labour Benches now--who watched the Secretary of State's lips at the 1995 Labour party conference, when he said "No selection by examination or interview", will have been startled by today's announcement. On this issue, the Government are guilty of confusion and cowardice.

Specialist schools are able to select 10 per cent. of their pupils; but the Secretary of State tells Radio 4 that they are not selective. And what of the new national academies for gifted and talented children? Will the Secretary of State tell us how pupils will be selected to attend the national academies, if not by examination or interview or on the basis of aptitude?

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister's office, which says that our comprehensive schools today are bog standard? Labour's confusion over selection is obvious. They attack grammar schools, but have brought in selection in the inner cities for the brightest pupils, and will now bring in selection for those who wish to take vocational GCSEs. When will the Government stop their vendetta against grammar schools, and scrap the grammar school ballots?

The Secretary of State has talked today of diversity and choice. Instead, he offers bureaucracy and confusion. What is clear from the details of the statement is that the Government will still be imposing their will on schools. As with the Thunderbirds puppets, the central manipulator will still be obvious.

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Will the Secretary of State now accept that the only way in which to provide for the freedoms of which he and the Prime Minister speak is to free our schools from the shackles of local education authorities, provide the whole of the funding for each school directly to the school on the basis of a national formula, and set schools free to decide what is right for their pupils, untrammelled by bureaucratic and politically correct interference from central or local government?

Our schools need to draw out and to develop the talents and abilities of every child and to enable each child to develop his full potential. Our aim is to provide the education that is right for every child, but, for that, we need an education system whose hallmarks are excellence, diversity and choice--a system where schools are free to set their own ethos, to maintain it through their admissions policy and to set and to exert discipline; where they receive the whole of their budget direct and are free to spend it in the interests of their pupils; and where teachers are trusted and free to get on with the job of teaching children and raising standards.

The Green Paper does nothing to provide the freedom that our teachers and schools are crying out for. This is not just a bog standard, but a failing Government: they are failing schools, children, teachers and parents. In the interests of our children's future, they should be removed from office as soon as possible.

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful to the Lady Penelope of the Opposition for the warm welcome that she has given to the raising of standards and to the concentration on pupil improvement. I am also grateful for her many suggestions for improving standards in the most deprived parts of the country--I am terribly sorry that I appeared to miss all that last bit of her speech. Instead, we got a diatribe of dogma about taking money away from special needs, from school transport and from school improvement and simply distributing it through the standard spending assessment process. Let me answer one or two of the things that the hon. Lady did ask me.

We are interested in investing in improvement, not in profit. It was sad that the hon. Lady made no additional suggestions about teacher recruitment, which I have requested from her twice in the House in the past month. She made no suggestions for improving the schools that were left to flounder under the previous Government; nor did she welcome the measures that we are introducing via pupil learning credits. Through that process we will ensure that there is greater freedom for those schools that wish to exercise it, rather than imposing it on them. By that means we can also invest in raising the chances of every child, gifted, talented, or with special needs. Instead of commenting on those proposals, we heard a diatribe about structure, questions about profit and abuse of the work that has been going on to raise standards throughout the country.

The hon. Lady compares the position during the depths of the recession in the early 1990s with that of today. Let us compare what we inherited with the position today. Expenditure on education has increased from 4.7 per cent. of national income to 4.96 per cent. We have every intention of ensuring that that expenditure graph rises, as the Prime Minister spelt out this morning, so that, year on year on year, there will be increased funding for schools, which we have not seen for generations, and which will enable teachers to do their job properly.

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Let me take on the central issue raised by the hon. Lady. The present Government have managed to turn around 650 schools that were on special measures and restore them to sound health. That achievement has been far more effective than anything achieved before. The good teaching, good schooling and better results achieved in those schools have been recognised by the past three reports of successive chief inspectors. That is the measure by which we determine our success. The measures that we use are not the criticisms raised by the hon. Lady, but whether the life chances of children are being improved by our policies.

I challenge the hon. Lady and her colleagues to say whether they would spend the extra £82 million this year, whether they would spend the increased amount on performance-related promotion and whether they would continue the standards fund investment, which is directly aiding those schools, through the excellence in cities programmes. That money does not, however, go directly to the schools and is therefore not covered by the so-called pledge--one of the many pledges that last about three weeks--that Conservative Members have made on school spending, not on education spending. If they will not say that they would spend that money on raising standards in our schools, the Opposition--we shall be meeting them at the general election--will be a bunch of hypocrites, preaching one thing while intending to practise another.

As for the hon. Lady's gibe at the start of her oration, I can say only that I am very pleased to be able to combine accountability to the public, whom we serve, with accountability to the House--so that everyone knows what we are proposing and is aware of what the Opposition are not proposing.

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