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15 Nov 2002 : Column 289—continued

Mr. Willis : It is Liberal Democrat policy.

Mr. Pickthall: So I could be wrong after all.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) recently published an analysis of the process in our schools, and referred to it in connection with the hospital service in his speech yesterday. I agree with every word. The simple truth presented by my right hon. Friend is that if we identify certain schools, give them a special title to make clear their favoured status and give them more resources, ipso facto we damage those that do not acquire that status. We create a two-tier system which will perpetuate itself, and which will inevitably become more and more stark and polarised. If on top of that we make a school's ability to raise private funds a condition for the securing of special status, we compound the injustice by skewing status and funding towards wealthier catchment areas and away from disadvantaged areas.

I referred to a two-tier system, but there are no longer just two tiers. We are told that we will have 2,000 specialist schools and 33 academies—city academies, I assume—by 2006. We will have 60 more training schools each year, extended schools, and advanced schools. It is as if there had been a brainstorming session in the Department. It is as if a crowd of people had come up with some good ideas and thrown them on the table, and no one had bothered to edit them—as if the ideas had been put out and people had said XWe will have some of that, and some of that". There are many good things in each of the proposals I have mentioned, but what is being created is not a two-tier system but a series of levels. It is called diversity. I am all in favour of diversity, but if some schools have the advantage at a certain point while others must wait for years, many will disappear, having been gobbled up by the disadvantages created by the new schools with their special funding.

The only argument that the Government have produced to counter the criticisms is that specialist schools are required to work with non-specialist schools and spread the benefits of their resources to the wider community. That is nonsense: it does not bear a moment's examination. The matter is gone into more thoroughly in the description of the advanced schools, in which it is made plain that such schools will have to help the other schools in the community. It is a strange situation: having acquired an advantage that will suck in pupils who would otherwise have gone to other schools,

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a school will have to go back to the schools it has disadvantaged in order to re-advantage them a little, on the Department's orders.

The impulse behind what I consider to be a profoundly unfair process is summarised by the Government's declaration of the Xpost-comprehensive era"—which would make sense if only we had ever had a comprehensive era or a comprehensive system. Somehow, in our wonderful British way, we have managed to avoid creating such a system, although at the crucial time it was the policy of all three major parties.

The thinking is based on myths. We read

Where are these places? I do not know of them. Comprehensives are as varied as their staff, their governing bodies, their head teachers, their local education authorities and, most important, the communities around them. There is no such thing as an off-the-shelf comprehensive.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley told us that comprehensives were Xtoo uniform". If all this stuff is true, why do parents all over the country fight tooth and nail to get their kids into one comprehensive rather than another? If the schools are all exactly the same, it does not matter where Johnny goes. Let him choose a school himself, and wander off there.

We were told XThis is not selection", because

Well, that is 6 per cent. selection for a start. XThere is no selection"? Of course there is selection.

I have read carefully the Department's analysis of what is needed in our secondary system. I agree that many comprehensives have failed, as did many grammar schools and many more secondary moderns in their time; but the vast majority of comprehensives succeeded wonderfully, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has pointed out vigorously.

I rejoice in the vastly improved funding introduced by the Government, the introduction of learning mentors, the increase in the number of classroom assistants—which is destined to continue—and, in particular, the greater flexibility and freedom to tailor the curriculum that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced in recent weeks. I commend the creation of excellence clusters, and I hope that during the year the Government will find the energy and the resources to expand the system—and to deal with some anomalies in it.

I detected substantial changes in emphasis in my right hon. Friend's speech on the Ofsted anniversary. I hope he will be robust in resisting some of the weird agendas devised by etiolated wonks in the back of No. 10, or wherever. Above all, I hope that he will think carefully about the steady drive towards a two or three-tier secondary system, which I think will be more unfair than the old 11-plus, rightly rejected by most of our areas 30 years ago. At least in the 1950s and 1960s people had equal chances of getting into grammar school.

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I look forward to the proposals on higher education, and hope that during the year the idea of top-up fees will be knocked on the head. It is another of the divisive set of ideas that seem to be growing up—although Cambridge seems to have turned against it, which is good. I could never support top-up fees, and I do not believe that most of the parliamentary Labour party could either.

I hope that the proposals that will come out during the year will carefully examine many of the Mickey Mouse degree courses that have sprung up throughout the country to accommodate the wide range of students being packed into universities to reach the ambitious and arbitrary target on the percentage of young people entering higher education. It is instructive to look at the admissions list of any provincial university five years ago, 10 years ago and today to see how many of the old core subjects have shrunk to tiny numbers and been replaced, as one of my colleagues said, by degrees in carpet fitting. Well, I have not quite come across one of those but it would not surprise me if one did emerge.

Mr. McWalter: At least it would be useful.

Mr. Pickthall: Better than philosophy.

Mr. McWalter: Outrageous.

Mr. Pickthall: Sorry.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will continue the wonderful work in enabling free access to many national and regional museums. There has been an important turnaround in my area. I visit museums throughout Merseyside and the north-west fairly regularly and see the massive increase in the number of people going there, particularly kids, who are going regularly. It is as serious a part of their education as anything else in the education sector.

The Queen's Speech announces a Bill to reform our totally outmoded licensing laws. I particularly commend the provisions that will allow police to shut down any licensed premises for 24 hours without notice. When I was the Private Parliamentary Secretary to the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), I participated in many discussions under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), in which we sought to balance the freedoms of much more flexible licensing hours and the benefits that brings, with effective protection for neighbourhoods that may experience destruction, noise or disorderly behaviour. I speak as someone who lives within staggering distance of a large pub; it is on the opposite side of the road. I have never had any problems with it but one never knows—if there are problems I have not noticed them.

I am pleased that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has continued to work intelligently along those lines. I think that it will be a popular and successful Bill and change in the law if we get some of the little bits right. My one worry is about the new licensing authority being placed totally on the shoulders of local councils. I understand why it is being done and I think

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that I agree—there have been some pretty dodgy goings-on in the present system—but many people involved in the system, including licensees, have expressed concern that it may result in local political considerations, resulting in unfairness.

I hope that the Secretary of State, during the passage of the Bill, will consider placing the same restrictions on licensing committees that exist for planning committees on local councils in order to prevent caucusing, undue influence or whatever. Perhaps she may consider the virtues of licensing committees composed of councillors and local magistrates with an independent chairman. We discussed that and it was rejected but I cannot for the life of me remember what the reasons for its rejection were.

I am pleased with almost everything in the Queen's Speech, especially the crime and justice legislation. I am delighted that the ending of hunting with dogs is nigh and that we are to have significant legislation on the water industry, water supply, waste and emissions and sexual crime. Perhaps most of all, I look forward to campaigning in the near future on an elected regional assembly for the north-west.

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