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Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): I was delighted to hear some cross-party agreement breaking out today after the shenanigans of last week in both Houses of Parliament. I was pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that his party intends to support the Bill. It is right to do so, even though some aspects of it are not yet perfect. It was amusing to hear that the Conservatives now have a potted plant policy. By eradicating a few potted plants, they intend to eradicate all the woes of the public services. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that.
Some aspects of the Bill that focus on accountability appear to work in one direction, but others appear to work in the opposite direction. The Bill suggests that more academies will be introduced. However, it is odd that a Bill that seeks to introduce greater accountability for what happens in education should also propose further academies, for which a sponsor who puts in £2 million can attract some £24 million of public money. That means that the sponsor will have an 8 per cent. stake, as against a public stake of 92 per cent., but will have 100 per cent. control. To what extent will the public have the right to ensure that their wishes for such a school are properly considered? Where will the accountability lie?
In May, the Government will back a conference entitled "Schools at the Heart of the Community", the stated aim of which is to explore the role that schools can play in community empowerment and regeneration. I find it difficult to reconcile that aim with the whole idea of academies. The public will put in most of the finance, but where is the accountability for how the academies will be run?
Other provisions in the Bill appear to take power away from the local education authority and hand it to the Secretary of State. For example, clauses 67 and 102 both give the Secretary of State extra powers to impose requirements on an LEA, rather than allowing it greater autonomy to make its own decisions on behalf of the people whom it represents. Some aspects of the Bill would cut schools off from their local community
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moorings, but those are very important. We should try to ensure that schools are accountable to their local communities as far as possible.
In respect of the provisions that apply to Wales and the Welsh Assembly, however, the opposite seems to be true. The Government seem to be attempting to reduce the cold hand of central Government and strengthen local accountability by giving more power to the Welsh Assembly. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) is delighted to welcome those aspects of the Bill, especially those that address the danger to small rural schoolsindeed, to small schools generally. I, too, very much welcome those provisions, and in particular clause 70, which was inserted by the Lords with Conservative and Liberal Democrat support, and I hope that the Government will see fit to leave it in the Bill.
Last year, I made it my job to visit all the small rural schools in my constituency because I was aware that there was a problem with falling rolls. Demography creates that, even in an area such as mine where the population in general is growing. We are an attractive area and there is a lot of employment, so many people want to move to west Berkshire, but although the population is growing the number of children born each year is still going down. Falling rolls in some of the small rural primary schools have led to low numbers, which has an effect in terms not only of the school's financial viability but, perhaps even more important, of its educational viability. If a school gets too small, with only one or two teachers, the full scope of the national curriculum may not be properly delivered.
In my area, as in many areas, schools form federations to share teaching staff and facilities. That can overcome some of the problems, and I am happy to say that my local authority is doing its utmost to ensure that all the small rural schools are kept open. So far, it has been successful, but the problem is increasing. Numbers are falling every year and will continue to fall for a few years more. I am pleased that clause 70 has been included, as it gives rights to the local community so that at least it can be consulted properly about whether a small rural school should close.
Nearly 12 years ago, I made my maiden speech in the House. I do not pretend to remember it word for word. I suspect that some Members in the Chamber today were not here on that occasion, and even if they had been they probably would not remember it word for word either. However, I certainly remember what it was aboutthe problem of the closure of rural post offices. Closures of rural schools and rural post offices have similar effects. Both institutions often play a critical part in the village community and village life. Sadly, when one or other closes, and certainly if both close, the community may collapse, leaving only rich people or those who have a second home in the village, because it is so difficult for poorer people to remain, especially if they do not have their own transport, as so little public transport is left in some rural areas. That is certainly the case in west Berkshire, as well as elsewhere.
There is an inherent danger in the Bill if parents have greater rights to choose popular schools, which may expand and take in extra children. There could be two village schools of more or less equal quality, but one might be slightly more popular than the otherfor good or not-so-good reasonsso there is a danger that
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a few of the richer parents from the village whose school is marginally less good may decide to move their children to the school in the next village. They can take up that option because they can drive the children to the school in the next village in their 4x4 vehicles, leaving a decreasing population in the other village until finally the school is no longer viable. That is to the huge detriment of the poorer people in that village. They do not have transport to take their children to the next village and life could become extremely difficult for them.
There are reasons for taking an overall view of education throughout a community area to allow for the maintenance, as far as possible, of a local community primary school in each local community. That can have huge benefits, which may, for the whole community, over the whole LEA area, outweigh people's understandable wish to choose a school that has become a bit more popular, simply because they are wealthy enough to take advantage of that choice.
Schools go up and down quickly. I am sure that all of us have seen examples in our area of a school that has become unpopular and not as good as it was suddenly being turned round by the arrival of a new head teacher. That can often make a huge difference to a school. A school that was beginning to fail and become unpopular can find that situation reversed and quickly grow again. However, if we follow the principle that the Bill seems to enunciate, we may endanger some schools by allowing other local schools that have become popular over a short period, because of a good head teacher, to expand quickly and take children from the less popular schools. Schools could become non-viable when simply putting in a good new teacher might be enough to reverse the situation. I certainly do not want to see the closure of my smaller rural schools, which might be the result if we were to go ahead purely with the Government's proposals and would certainly be the case if clause 70 were removed, as I fear the Government may be threatening. It is all very well for rich parents, but not so good for those who are poor. We have to protect the whole of our community, not just those who have the power and wealth to go where they choose.
There is much that is right in the Bill, but some things seem to be working in contradiction to one another. The Government need to reconsider some of them, perhaps in Committee, if the Bill gets that far, where we could then iron out some of its contradictory aspects.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab):
I am pleased to have this rather unexpected opportunity to speak in the debate. I have a great interest in education in general, and in some of these matters in particular, as at one time I was a teacher. I taught A-level economics and politics, although in further education rather than in a school, and it was an interesting experience. Many of my close relatives are or have been teachers at various levels. I have a close involvement with all the schools and colleges in my constituency and I am vice-chair of the governors of our sixth-form college. I also spend an hour or so every year teaching a class myself, so I have some feel for what is happening on the ground, rather than just speaking from the lofty heightsthe ivory towerof Parliament.
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For many years, I have been concerned about what is going wrong in British education. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development statistics on educational achievement in Britain show a pattern different from that in any other country. The top 10 per cent. of our students do extremely well and compare with the best in the world, yet the bottom 30 per cent. of our pupils are near the bottom of the table. Our average puts us at a reasonable level in the OECD table, but our extremes are at opposite ends, and the bottom third is of most concern.
When I was in teaching, inspection was not good. I entered teaching with a degree but no teaching qualification. When I was inspected, the vice-principal came in for half an hour and his only comment was that my writing on the board was untidy. That was not news to me, as I have always struggled with writing. That was the extent of the criticism of my teaching. Fortunately, I got good results and my pupils made complimentary remarks about my teaching relative to that of some of my colleagues. That was the nearest I got to proper inspectioninspection by my pupils rather than by a professional from outside.
Inspectors were of various types. The teaching philosophy at the time was for informal methods, which had the education system by the throatnot a good idea, in my view. One of my associates taught in a very formal way, and when he was aware that the inspector was coming he got his pupils to put their desks into little groups and asked them to talk to each other while the inspector was in the room. The inspector thought that was splendid, but when he went away the teacher said, "Put your desks back in lines, be quiet and listen to me". The inspector was unaware that the teacher taught formally. That teacher was extremely popular with parents, because pupils learned much more in his class than in some of the other classes. So inspection was perfunctory and not very good. Some of the philosophies that were peddled by inspectors in those days clearly led to some of today's problems.
Behaviour was not considered a serious problem in those days. We have lived to regret that, because we have developed a culture of boisterous behaviour in schools, to say the least. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) drew our attention to that fact. We now have to deal with that and row back from allowing classroom behaviour to get out of hand. When I was first elected, I suggested to a junior Education Minister that we should deal with such behaviour in the classroom, but the Minister said that that would be too prescriptive.
I am glad that my hon. Friends who now sit on the Front Bench have a different view and that we are looking at classroom behaviour. I do not know whether this is true for other hon. Members, but I could never learn well in a boisterous, noisy atmosphere. I learned better in a quiet and orderly atmosphere. That sounds old-fashioned, but it seems obvious to anyone with a bit of common sense. However, that was not the situation in many schools for many years, and most teachers found it difficult to cope with that.
Primary and secondary schools in my constituency have had problems. Four schools have been in special measures, but they have come out of them because of the efforts of some superb head teachers and some very good teachers. Many of them have moved towards a more traditional approach to teaching, which has been
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beneficial. I shall dwell on one school in particular, which was not in special measures but was not a star performer, although it was still a good school. It was part of the three-year pilot scheme for inclusion units, whereby pupils who misbehaved or found it difficult to behave themselves in class were taken out of the class and put into the inclusion unit, where they received perhaps one-to-one teaching until such time as they felt able to return to the classroom and behave.
This year, that school was listed as one of the 100 most improved schools in the country, and it is not improbable that the inclusion unit had an effect. Pupils who had difficulties behaving themselves in class were taken out immediately so that the teacher could get on and teach the other pupils, and when they felt better about things they could return to the classroom. That has made a difference. It is a fine school with a wonderful head teacher. I go there regularly, and it is a delight to see that it has done so well this year.
I am glad that, under clause 44, the Government are rowing back a little from declaring too easily that schools are failing. The category for schools that look likely to fail will be removed, and in future only when schools are really failing will they be categorised as such. That is wise. As I have told Ministers in the past, we should not label schools before they get into difficulties but should be aware that they are not performing well and get resources into them early on, to start to improve them long before they start to fail. I want to press Ministers to take that approach: to look at schools that are not performing well, to put in resources and to make sure that those schools have the right management and head teachers, even if we have to pay them a little more and give them a premium for teaching in difficult areas, to ensure that those schools improve.
The market approach of letting a lot of schools compete with one another and allowing some to fail and some to succeed is not only divisive but expensive and wasteful. I would prefer the resources go into making every school in the country a good school. That is not just a fair but an efficient way forward, and it would cost a lot less public money.
What causes the problems in schools? Many problems relate to social divisions. Sadly, Britain is still a socially divided societymuch more so than the continent of Europe. We have had an enormous variety of schools since the second world wargrammar, secondary modern, comprehensive, technical and faithand each area now has a hierarchy of schools that reinforces those social divisions rather than cutting across them.
I have suggested to my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, who recently left the Chamber, that if we approached education by producing a balance of population in every school and ensuring that every school is a good school, we might start to address those social divisions and divisions in education and make some progress in bringing Britain together as a society, as well as improving the educational performance of those at the bottom who have been doing less well.
At the moment, we have hierarchies of schools, even in areas with a good education system, such as my constituency. Some schools are in areas with relatively poor living standards where people face a degree of deprivation. Of course, children from those areas perform less well at school. In other areas, we have
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magnet schools that are targeted by middle-class people, who move into the area and push up house prices. There is a little enclave of middle-class families, with middle-class children going to middle-class schools, and they all do very well. That is fine for them, but it is not fine for the 30 per cent. who do not do so well.
We must deal with that problem and try to achieve a balanced population in schools. In most urban areas, that would not be too difficult because the distances involved are not great. When I taught 35 years ago, comprehensivisation was starting and there was an attempt to ensure a balance-of-ability range in the schools in some areas. Pupils were roughly categorised at the age of 11 into As, Bs, Cs and Ds. There was no 11-plus, but an attempt was made to ensure that schools had a balanced population.
In those circumstances, a genuine comparison could be made between schools that were performing well and those that were performing badly. Value-added measures, as well as different teaching methods, could be compared in each school, and inspectors could make a proper assessment of how well certain forms of teaching were succeeding. If we do not do that, we will continue with a hierarchy of schools, which is socially and educationally damaging, thus reinforcing the social divisions that are so uncomfortable and disagreeable in our society.
We want to avoid any kind of segregation along racial lines as well as those of social class. We also want a nice mixture of people in each school. Certainly in my constituency, most schools are like that. There is a tendency for one school to take more pupils from one community than another, but there is a mixture in each school nevertheless. I want that mixture to include the whole community.
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