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15 Nov 2002 : Column 285—continued

Mr. Gardiner: Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House how his proposals would impact on parents' costs? I

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understand that the state scholarship would give the cost of what would have been a state education towards the cost of a place at the school envisaged, but has he made any calculation of the differential—the actual cost to parents on top of that scholarship—that parents would then have to pay under his system?

Mr. Green: There would be none, because the schools would provide education at the same cost as that provided by the state. That is how the state scholarship would work.

We would also build trust in an independent exam system by making the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority independent of Government, along the lines of the Bank of England. I hope that the Government will adopt a similar proposal. I take this opportunity again to urge them strongly to do so, and to do so quickly. Of all the crises that the Government could face, the prospect of another A-level crisis next year would be the worst, so measures that can be taken quickly to restore confidence in the examination system are absolutely vital. I hope that if they need to introduce legislation to do that, they will do so, because it is absolutely vital to remove all traces of politics from the exam system. Unless the suspicion that Ministers measure their virtue by the grades is removed, the exam boards, or the QCA, will always be looking over their shoulder at the Secretary of State to see what effect the results will have on the political standing of the Government of the day. Secretaries of State for Education used not to behave in that way, and we need to get back to that position.

We also think that there should be a radical change to the A-level system, which has done more harm than good. The amount of exam time, as opposed to teaching time, has been increased. The Tomlinson inquiry concluded that the Curriculum 2000 A-level reforms, which introduced AS-levels, were an Xaccident waiting to happen". We all want to broaden the post-16 curriculum, but the current AS-level system is demonstrably not the way to do it.

Finally, and most importantly, we would trust heads to make the right decisions about how to run their schools. We support the Secretary of State's aim of raising standards of leadership in our schools, and he is right to argue that without strong leadership our children will not get the education that they deserve. If he really means what he says about trusting heads, he must allow them to set standards of discipline in their schools. That is why the independent appeals panels should go.

We believe that home-school behaviour contracts are a good idea. The right hon. Gentleman had the honesty to point out that these will be an option for heads. Once again, he asked me to determine what heads should do, and once again I say to him that I would let heads decide. A head knows how best to run discipline in his school, not the Secretary of State—whether that be the right hon. Gentleman, me or anyone else. The fundamental difference between us is that I trust heads, whereas he does not.

Experience shows us that these practical measures will deliver higher standards in our schools. Some schools already operate home-school contracts. I urge the Secretary of State to act on his words, and to grasp the agenda of real reform that we offer. He faces an

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enormous challenge. Improving our schools, colleges and universities is a central task for any Government. His task has been made more difficult because for five years, under his two predecessors, the doctrine of centralisation has reigned supreme. He says that he wants to do a U-turn and adopt the more decentralised and diverse system that we advocate. I wish him well in attempting to turn his back on five years of new Labour dogma on education. We will judge him on the results. Even more importantly, students, parents, teachers and governors will know whether they have been given the freedoms that will promote excellence and opportunity for all. Our policies would ensure that no child was left behind in our education system. If the Government's policies fail in that regard, they will be judged harshly, and they will deserve it.

11.3 am

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I congratulate the new Secretary of State, with whom I worked when he was a Minister at the Home Office. I know that he will be a first-class Secretary of State, and I hope that he will listen carefully to what I have to say and will act on some of it. I welcome and agree with almost everything that he said. I admire his cheek in writing the speeches of the spokesmen for the two Opposition parties, which takes some doing.

I want to concentrate on the paragraph in the Queen's Speech that includes the statement:

I shall give an example from my constituency of what is going on in secondary education. I should declare a sort of interest in that my wife is the head teacher of a comprehensive school in Skelmersdale, where I live. It is a town of 42,000 people and has some of the most disadvantaged wards in the country. It has excellent primary schools, all of which have benefited immensely from Government investment and targets over the past four or five years. It has an excellent sure start programme that is working exceedingly well. If the Opposition think that they could propose the removal of any or part of that scheme with electoral impunity, they have another think coming.

Skelmersdale has three excellent comprehensive schools, which have made major advances in the past few years. This year, for the first time, all three schools obtained more than 30 per cent. A to C grades at GCSE. That sounds modest compared with many other schools, even those in much more fortunate areas in my constituency outside Skelmersdale. Those areas have for many years creamed off the children from the most aspiring families in Skelmersdale, so we already have a self-selection system. In the true context of Skelmersdale and its history, the percentages gained by Glenburn, Our Lady Queen of Peace and Lathom high schools are truly remarkable, and they will be improved upon next year. In their continued efforts to compete with schools in the leafier parts of Lancashire, those three schools are applying for sports college status, technology college status and engineering college status respectively.

The entire staff and head teacher of two schools I know of, which are not in my constituency, have spent more than a year working to raise the #50,000 necessary

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to apply for such status by holding jumble sales, dances and other such activities, because there are no firms in their area that could easily come up with a large part of that sum. One of the schools in Skelmersdale has been pursuing specialist status for almost two years. The head and senior staff have a rock solid case, and they have put in phenomenal amounts of time and effort in pursuit of that goal, but the school requires #50,000. In a town such as Skelmersdale, it is impossible to raise such a sum of money: it cannot be done. There are no large businesses left that have not already been scraped clean of any charity that they could afford through previous begging bowl efforts.

If it is impossible for one school in the area to raise #50,000, it is even more impossible for three schools to do so. All the comprehensive schools in Skelmersdale are thereby disadvantaged. If it so happens that one of them secures specialist status, it will become more attractive, and it follows as night follows day that that will damage the other two schools in the town.

All three schools currently work well together. They are part of an excellence cluster that is doing wonderful things and has been tremendously successful. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris) for giving us the chance to develop that cluster. Those schools are destined by Government policy, which is styled as greater diversity for parents and pupils, for continuous struggle and disadvantage in a system that does not intend to be, but in practice is, divisive and discriminatory.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I, too, have two schools in my constituency that are struggling to raise #50,000, and there is no lack of commitment from parents or teachers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it makes dedicated and hard-working teachers feel that they are second best, and leads to low morale?

Mr. Pickthall: I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not detect that it has led to low morale in the schools to which I am referring, but the academic leadership of schools in challenging areas have been diverted into activities on which they should not have to spend more than minimal time.

Mr. McWalter: Has my hon. Friend considered the possibility of the three schools making a joint application, as is happening in my constituency? That avoids such divisiveness, and enables the specialist facilities to be available to all, but to be developed in each of the schools.

Mr. Pickthall: That is an interesting suggestion, which we have discussed. The problem is that one school wants sports-college status because of its outstanding sport record, while another is outstanding in technology. If such a scheme could be organised, however, and the three schools between them had to raise #50,000, it would make a significant difference.

Specialist status, of whatever kind, seems to be a matter of sheer chance. If a successful firm or two in the town can spare some cash a school will succeed in its bid, all other things being equal. Even in Lancashire, there are schools in which a single governor could put up the #50,000 without missing it.

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When the schools and I protested to the Department, we were given a list of firms throughout the country that might help. When those firms were canvassed it turned out that none of them could help, because they were already giving help elsewhere. We came up with other ideas for finding the cash, but the Department vetoed all of them.

In his speech on the 10th anniversary of Ofsted, the Secretary of State identified the Xfourth freedom"—I welcome all four—as

Why not start with the requirement for #50,000? Why not get rid of that? Why not resurrect what is buried in all our education documents of the past couple of years—the promise that all schools would be able to bid for specialist status? Why not fulfil that promise?

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