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Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is raising an interesting issue. Does he think that a comparison can be made between education and health? The point that he makes about systemic problems is almost a study of epidemiology. Is the problem in New Zealand not so much that the schools are independent but that there is no proper study of what might be going wrong? Does he not think that, if there were greater independence for schools in the UK, combined with a better Ofsted system similar to that which he espoused earlier, one could get the best of both worlds?

Mr. Sheerman: No, that is not the answer. My analysis of the situation—I take a lot of evidence and look at many other countries' experience—shows that real problems are involved in giving up the ability of local authorities to take an overview and knit together a process. I shall give an example, and in doing so, I shall come to my third point: 14-to-19 reform.

Most enlightened people in the education world in this country passionately believe that it is right to introduce 14-to-19 reform—in fact, all the major parties in the House are still in favour of reforming 14-to-19 education—and Mike Tomlinson gave evidence before our Committee only last week. However, if we introduce a major 14-to-19 reform— of course, that bridges 11-to-16 education and post-16 education, which are very different systems; one has an LEA input, while post-16 education largely does not—who organises the system? Who knits it together? It is a magnificent challenge to get 14-to-19 education right, because if we do, it will start to deliver proper education and a parity of esteem between the people who have taken an academic route and those who have taken a more practical and vocational route. We are on a wonderful journey, and I admire the Government for leading in that direction.

I do not see anyone other than the local education authorities with any democratic roots. I do not count the Learning and Skills Council, because it is a quango even though it reports to our Committee. Therefore, if there is no other system builder that is capable of knitting together 14-to-19 education reform, the local education authorities will have to take on that important role.

Kali Mountford: I thank my hon. Friend and good neighbour for giving way on this point. In his analysis
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and from the experience that we have in west Yorkshire, what contribution does he feel can be made to bringing out the best qualities of each school and each individual by schools collaborating across a whole area? They can contribute to what he says about knitting across the system of post-16 education.

Mr. Sheerman: That is absolutely typical of my good neighbour. She steals my next line, which I hoped was going to be my best one. I am making the case for being very careful about getting rid of the one agent for systemic change. I am worried about that in terms of what I have said about Ofsted and inspection and what I have said about the diminished role of education authorities.

It is not just the Queen's Speech that counts, and the Secretary of State knows that very well. There is a five-year plan and, if we want to know how independent schools will be, we should look at the five-year plan, at what will happen to foundation schools and at how easy it will be to become a totally independent school that owns the land and everything else. Such schools will be totally independent and all they have to do is have one vote through the governors.

I hope that the Secretary of State will compare that with what we said in our admission inquiry report. We pointed out that the vote in such cases was nonsense. Whatever view one takes about grammar schools and the 11-plus in parts of the country, no one can defend the basis on which the ballot takes place. It does not work. I almost said that it was crooked, but it is not. However, it is totally distorted to get one answer, and that answer will always be no. That is not a fair basis for consultation. We said that on an all-party basis in the Select Committee and it is absolutely true. Let us compare that with the vote on becoming a foundation school. One vote take places in one room in the school and then it becomes a foundation school.

I return to the point made by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford). A bit of the Government is always saying that the only way that we will knit together 11-to-16 and perhaps 14-to-19 education is through a greater degree of collaboration across schools. All the specialist schools in, let us say, Huddersfield, Colne Valley or Birmingham, where the Select Committee spent a week looking at education, have to work co-operatively together. That is the best way of getting the most out of the education system.

A senior adviser to the Government on London schools, Tim Brighouse—he was the chief education officer in Birmingham—has a notion of collegiates of schools operating together across the piece. That is a magnificent vision. However, if the Secretary of State really thinks that he will get that level of co-operation from individual barons or baronesses running their own schools, he should talk to any head about co-operation and collegiates of schools. They will say, "It is a wonderful idea, but I wish I had the time to do it." It is a complicated thing to achieve. If we want such participation and co-operation, head teachers will need someone to help them, and from my experience that will be their local education authorities. The Secretary of State should be cautious about riding the horse of greater independence for schools and
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diminishing the power of local education authorities while desiring more co-operation across the piece, because it will probably end in tears.

I shall make a final point because I have taken up far too much time, albeit only half that taken by anyone else who has spoken. It is proven that the best target for great investment in education is the early years, but another aspect of education comes close and is important to the future of our country. I shall again be nice to the Government. They have run the most successful economy in the developed world for the past seven and a half years—brilliant! Thanks to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor working as a close-knit team, they have delivered the wonderful economic situation in which we have found ourselves that has allowed us to afford the investment that we have ploughed into health and education. However, the future of the way in which our country innovates, produces new enterprises and becomes more successful as an entrepreneurial culture depends to a great extent on our higher education and the research carried out in our universities.

When the Education and Skills Committee reported on the Government's White Paper, we said—albeit slightly as a subtext—that the most important aspect was the recommendation on research funding. We thought that flexible fees, or top-up fees—whatever one wants to call them—were a secondary issue. The amount invested in research and the places in which the investment is made is the most important matter for the long-term future of our country. We warned the Government about concentrating too much big science research in a handful of institutions.

I discussed the matter with Sir Richard Sykes. I asked him whether his suggestion covered only five universities, and he said, "Yes, only five." I told him that that would mean that all the science-rich research universities would be in London and the south-east, and he said, "Yes, so what?" I tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that that proposal would exclude your constituency and mine. It would exclude the regions of England and the rest of the UK. Research would be focused in London and the south-east to too great an extent. If we are a country of all the regions, each region should have at least one big science research university, and it would be appalling to aim for anything less. The research assessment exercise has been driven by picking only five and five-star rated departments to get the riches from the Higher Education Funding Council, but that is plain wrong. Departments that are three or four-star rated are those in which hungry men and women are researching away because they want their departments to have a five or five-star rating. Many of the great inventions and breakthroughs have come from departments with ratings of three or four.

Four chemistry departments have closed in our universities in recent times, including one in Exeter, but that cannot be right. Lord Lewis has consistently made the case that a critical mass of departments is required to retain sufficient scientists in a country such as the United Kingdom and thus keep a subject alive. That is how people continue to innovate and get the highest prizes that the world has to offer.
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I hope that the Government will go back to our Committee's evaluation of their higher education proposals and think carefully about what they will do in the months running up to the general election to promote fair investment in our universities' research departments. If that means shaking up the HEFC a bit, I am sure that the Committee will help them. If it means examining clearly the assumptions underlying the research assessment exercise, we will help with that, too.

3.49 pm

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