Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: I naturally do not accept the hon. Gentleman's comments. We need a clearer view of where the Conservative party stand on important matters of education policy, as they sometimes seem inconsistent. There seem to be at least two, and possibly three, factions in the parliamentary Conservative party with respect to major issues of education policy.

I turn to amendment No. 239, tabled by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. I—along with other members of the Committee, no doubt—am at a loss to understand the practical effect of the additional words that he wants to insert. I cannot understand how inserting the words ''financial assistance'' would change the clause. He accepted that it was a probing amendment, which would bring the Bill into line with the views of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, as he focused exclusively on the possibility of the Government supporting various independent school initiatives, such as the OASIS—open access to schools in the independent sector—proposals or the Sutton Trust. His suggestion did not seem to have a more general application relating to the use of additional powers not legislated for in the clause. He was interested purely in the independent sector.

The Government are proud of the fact that we have encouraged partnerships, where appropriate, between the independent and maintained sectors. We are committed to that, because we believe that it significantly benefits children and young people, but in no circumstances would we contemplate returning to the days of a divisive education system, in which the state concentrated its resources and policies on a small minority of children and young people. That had disastrous effects in terms of social division and is one reason why our economy was held back for many years.

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Mr. Willis: I was not going to respond to the amendments, but the Minister deserves a response. The amendments distract from the main issue that the Committee and the House should be considering. They have been allowed to become a distraction because the Bill restores the very powers that the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), took away in his first piece of legislation in the House. The Bill restores the right to assisted places, and the Minister has admitted that the Secretary of State may fund any private school that he wishes to fund. I accept what the Minister says when he tells us that that is not the Government's intention, so I am not being disingenuous. I believe that it is purely coincidental that millions of pounds have been provided for the Secretary of State to support initiatives with private schools. I fully understand that that is a by-product, not the Government's intention. The Ministers are conferring on that issue, but the reality is that over the past 12 months, we have heard through press releases—not through the House—of millions of pounds going to support private schools. If the Minister wants to tell the Committee that that is not so, let him do so.

I am sure that no one believes the Minister when he says that he wants no more divisive education systems. I am surprised that a man of such intelligence and integrity would purport to present that as Government policy. There is nothing more divisive than what the Government are doing in the Bill in terms of secondary schooling; nothing more divisive than saying that 50 per cent. of our schools can be specialist schools by 2006, so that the other 50 per cent. will not. How does that not divide those that get the money from those that do not, those that have the extra kudos from those that do not, and those that attract the additional teachers from those that do not? If that is not divisive, I do not know what is. I should like to see every school receive extra money and have special status, and every one of them have to state their special ethos and to develop that ethos. That is a laudable objective for Government—[Interruption.]

With respect to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), it might be the Government's policy, but we are talking about half the schools in Britain being specialist in five years' time, and the other half not; half having an extra £0.5 million of resources and the others not. If the hon. Gentleman does not think that that will make a difference to the perception of people in all our constituencies and to parents' choices between schools, he is wrong. Perhaps he should do more work in his constituency to see what differences will exist between schools.

The Minister claimed he did not want a divisive educational system. What will the expansion of faith schools do? Is the Minister conscious of what is happening in terms of some of the faith schools in Britain? The Minister for School Standards said just two weeks ago that his attack on grammar schools was over. Opposition Members might applaud that, but it means that the Government's stated intention when they came to power that there should be no more

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selection has been thrown out of the window, and that grammar schools are now acceptable. Grammar schools, specialist schools, faith schools—if that is not creating a divisive education system, what is?

Returning to the amendments, I think that the Minister is right to say that they would be a recipe for funding private schools. That is what assisted places were. All the evidence and research shows that middle-class parents were using the system effectively to have their children transferred to the private sector. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to that, although he saw it as a flawed scheme and was honest enough to say so.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that they might have been middle-class parents, but on the whole they were middle-class parents on low incomes? I accept that the scheme will not benefit everyone, but it will benefit some people.

Mr. Willis: I did not mention income. I referred to middle-class parents. Successive Conservative Governments have never given a fig for children at the poor end of the spectrum, or cared about whether children living in abject poverty should have an education.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: No, I want to finish this point. The impact of this must be felt. If, for instance, 100 or 200 youngsters from one local authority were attracted to private schools, that would not just affect the children in those private schools; it would have a knock-on effect for everybody who was left in the system, because it would add costs to the whole system and take out, as did the assisted places scheme, those parents who should be agitating within the system for its improvement.

We have to address the question, which was never addressed under assisted places and is not addressed in the amendments, of how the children are to be chosen. If it is to be purely because they do not get their first choice and they are a bit unhappy, who introduced that system? It was the previous, Conservative Government. To be fair to this Government, they attempt, in the part of the Bill on admissions, to rectify some of the problems of first choice. Will the private schools make the choice? Which children will they choose under the circumstances?

I hope that the Government return to the matter in due course, but one of the most acute admission problems is to be found in London, and it results from the Greenwich judgment. In many London boroughs, children have a problem gaining admission to a school, let alone the school of choice.

Mr. Brady: I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and I am most grateful to him for his support. We grammar school boys must stick together, albeit that he attended a fee-paying grammar school and mine was in the maintained sector. I do not hold that against him, as I know that William Hulme was an excellent grammar school. I

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was delighted last year to address the founder's day dinner at that school, and I know that he would have been sorry to have missed it.

He said that, in 1997 and again this year, the electorate had drawn a line under the sort of policy set out in amendment No. 239. He went on to say that there was no difference between what my amendment sought to do and the provisions already in the Bill, but that was precisely my point. I made clear at the outset that this was a probing amendment, and that my purpose was to demonstrate that the words contained in the amendment were otiose. The Minister has kindly confirmed that. However, I would go a little further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight mentioned my saying that the picture on the front of ''Building Bridges for the New Millennium'' was good, even though I did not recognise which bridge it was. I explained that that was the reaction of a father who, as those members of the Committee who are parents would readily understand, might more properly have described it as a lovely picture, even though one could not say whether it was a bridge over the Thames or the Tyne.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight tabled an interesting amendment. It may be a policy prescription that my hon. Friends and I would be interested to examine. I suggest that the Ministers and their right hon. and hon. Friends might want to consider it; indeed, they may already be considering it.

Not only was the wording of amendment No. 239 otiose; more tellingly, so was the whole of my hon. Friend's amendment and new clause. As the Minister rightly said when rejecting the amendment, or suggesting that the Committee might be good enough to agree to a request that the amendment be withdrawn, the powers to do what we have discussed would remain in the Bill, completely unchanged. Those include the ability to introduce school vouchers, set up a system of education credits, introduce a form of assisted places scheme, accept the independent schools' councils OASIS proposals, and disburse funds by accepting Peter Lampl's proposals from the Sutton trust. All those powers are given under clause 13. For that reason, this has been a very useful debate.

It was clear from the Minister's remarks, and from the earlier remarks of the School Standards Minister, that as far as the Government are concerned, today's discussion is the end of the debate on education in the House of Commons. This is the last opportunity that hon. Members will have to scrutinise any such scheme that may be put forward by the present or future Governments. The Minister may say that none of that is his intention, nor is it the intention of the current Secretary of State.

Because of the way in which the Government are legislating and the unfettered powers that they are taking under clause 13, this has been an important opportunity to air some of the things that could be done with those broad powers. We shall watch with interest to see what the Government will do, but hon. Members on both sides should be aware that any Government who seek to take such powers while refusing to accept any future parliamentary control on

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how they are used, are asking both the House of Commons and the British public to take a huge amount on trust.

Among different Committee members on both sides, I am sure that there are many different pet schemes, projects, ideas and ways in which they think education policy could be developed. It is conceivable that any one of us may, at some future point, be Secretary of State for Education and Skills--[Interruption.]--subject, obviously, in one case, to a bit of fleet footwork and a change of party. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is on his own and I did not want to pick on him.

We must accept that, if the Bill as it stands becomes law, it will give any future Secretary of State the power to do almost anything with our education policy. That is not a good way in which to legislate. It may seem superficially attractive to Ministers in the short term, while they hold their office, but if they do not think again about the scope of the sweeping Executive powers and the absence of any facility for scrutiny or control of those powers, they will come to regret them. I shall not press the amendment to a vote.

6.30 pm

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