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Mr. Francois: We all know that the Liberal Democrats are opposed to faith schools, such as Church of England schools, even though they are overwhelmingly popular with parents. I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Is he saying that he opposes faith schools as well?
Mr. Hopkins: The reality is that we decided to include faith schools in the Education Act 1944with Catholic schools, Church of England schools and Jewish schoolsand that pattern cannot be changed now. Therefore, it is unfair to tell any community that it cannot have a faith school when there are clearly faith schools in other areas.
On the general case about faith schools, some may choose to have faith schools, but I hope that we will not see an enormous burgeoning in their number because I like the idea of people from different faiths being educated together. Clearly, some people in certain faiths
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would not want that to happen. They want to keep faith schools, and they clearly have that right. That will not be changed by any Government of any colour, so it is unfair to say that any community cannot have a faith school.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I happen to be a governor at a Roman Catholic girls secondary school. The school is different because all its pupils are Roman Catholic and it caters only for girls. However, it has a genuinely comprehensive intake, accepting girls from another parish that is much more deprived. In that respect, the school is made up of a mix of pupils from right across the social spectrum. The school's ethos is that parents take a close interest in their children's education, which is one of the most valuable elements in a school community. The school has extremely good results. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman would not deny those parents the choice of such an education for their children.
Mr. Hopkins: I agree with just about everything that the hon. Lady has said. My constituency has the largest Roman Catholic primary school in the country, and it is one of the best schools that one could find. There is also a large 11-to-18 Catholic secondary school. It is first class and does a wonderful job for pupils in my area. I am sure that the hon. Lady recognises that, for many years, the overwhelming majority of pupils at such schools came from Irish backgrounds. That is no longer the case because Roman Catholics from the Congo, the Philippines and many countries in eastern Europe have come to my constituency. There has been a wonderful flowering of multicultural education, even in Catholic schools. People learn about each other's cultures, and it is nice to see a faith that covers different communities from different parts of the world and that allows people to understand each other. That is a great advance. I do no not want faith to reinforce the other divisions that exist in our country, and the position is starting to change.
We have faith schools and they will continue, but I do not want an enormous variety of other schools to be set up to compete against each other. Rather, society, the Government and all of us should make sure that every school is a good school and that no school is allowed to fail.
Mr. Hopkins: Precisely. The way to level up is to find the problems and build up those schools. That has happened in my constituency and across the country. It is to the Government's credit that they have taken that approach. They have looked at the schools that are not doing well and have put in extra resources to start to bring them up. That requires rigorous inspection and a sensible approach to the teaching philosophy.
I speak with a little knowledge of this subject, but some teaching philosophies in the past were mistaken. We have been through an era in which extremely informal methods in certain areas caused serious
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problems. Such methods might be fine for people from enriched middle-class backgrounds who have houses full of books. I was one of them; I had great advantages. The hon. Lady may know of Millfield, which is a private boarding school that some colleagues may have gone to. A television programme about the school said how wonderful, informal and relaxed it was. The pupils called the teachers by their first names and it was meant to epitomise informal teaching and the relaxed approach to education. However, the school allowed in only a minority of the populationas determined by moneyand, even then, pupils had to be interviewed. Only people with a certain type of personality were allowed into the school, so that it could teach in the way that I have described.
Perhaps I could have been educated by informal methods and done very well. I happen to come from an enriched environment in which I started off with every possible advantage in educational terms. That may not show now, but it certainly did at the time. However, that is not true for the great majority of youngsters who come from ordinary backgrounds. Good schools make the difference for them, so we must make sure that every school is good.
I was coming to the end of my speech when I took one or two interventions. They have prolonged my speech, but I hope that I have not delayed hon. Members too much. However, I want to point out to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that we should not change systems that work well. I urge them to consider the Luton system where we have 11-to-16 high schools and a sixth form college. That system provides the ideal form of secondary education, and I challenge anyone to demonstrate that any other system works as well.
Such a system works well provided that we have good schools, so it is important to ensure that they have the resources and good staff, and offer quality education. Once that is assured, we can go on to success. I frequently go to the schools in Luton and I am full of admiration for what they do. The teachers are dedicated and the pupils are enthusiastic. There are undoubtedly problems because some pupils come from deprived backgrounds and behaviour here and there is not what it should be, but the schools in Luton, which is not an advantaged area, do brilliantly.
I urge Ministers not to try to change the systems that we have or, in particular, to insist that we change the system in Luton. They should look at what we do in Luton and think about adjusting secondary education elsewhere to follow our pattern. In particular, I suggest that, in certain areas, a sixth-form college system that pools sixth forms from schools is beneficial to pupils and education in those communities. I hope very much that the Government will consider promoting the sixth-form college model of secondary education in the future. I have spoken for longer than I intended, but I hope that Ministers will take into account some of what I have said.
Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op):
I apologise to the House for not being here at the start of the debate, but the Adjournment debate is about education funding in Leicestershire, and I hope to speak in it, so I hope that I will get a double go at talking about
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the issues. I am grateful for the chance to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). I know that he is a fellow Leicester City supporter so, like me, he will be feeling aggrieved by a late penalty decision in the FA cup.
I wish to concentrate on two aspects of the Bill. The first is the inspection regime and the second is what are described as the small financial aspects, which I believe do not go far enough. I welcome the Bill as part of the wider package of reforms that were set out in a number of documents: "Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners", "A New Relationship with Schools: Next Steps" and the paving document on the learning country and a comprehensive education. Plenty of heavyweight tomes are flying around describing what will happen.
"to establish a new relationship between government and schools. The overall purpose of this strategy is to reduce the burden of bureaucracy for schools, freeing up resources within schools, enabling them to concentrate on the core task of delivering high quality education."
It is on that point that I wish to speak from my experience in Leicestershirenot just as the Member of Parliament for Loughborough but as the parent of a child aged six who started school last year and a daughter who has just started free nursery education for three-year-olds. She will be three this Saturday. I have daily experience as a parent, and as the governor at a local primary school for several years.
I visited all the 36 schools in my constituency early in my time in Parliament and have maintained a healthy relationship with all the governors and head teachers since then. Unfortunately, events in the House on Friday meant that I was not able to take part in an assembly at Burleigh community college, so I would like to place on the record my apologies to all the students there. They were really looking forward to my entrance with my red nose and red wig. That did not happenmuch to my relief, if not theirs.
It is important to concentrate on what is happening in schools, and that is why I referred to the Government's aims and strategy for education. Those all sound very laudable, but there are still problems at the grass roots in delivering many of the changes. When Ministers visit schools, the first issue that teachers raise is the paperwork and bureaucracy that goes with teaching these days. Ironically, when my wife was helping out in my local school, only last week, she walked into the staff room and saw a photocopied cutting in bold, large print about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's idea that teachers could give their pupils reports every six weeks. The feedback on that suggestion was probably not the most helpful that we have received. It is important for us to recognise the impact that such measures have on teachers and the enormous amount of excellent work that they do.
I think that the number of teachers and teaching assistants in Leicestershire has risen by about 400 over the past few years, which is to be welcomed. I was pleased to hear that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) spoke about education in his maiden speech 12 years ago. I made my maiden speech on the Bill that contained measures to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds, and I am pleased to say
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that my son, who is at key stage 1 at primary school, is in a class of fewer than 30 pupils. I know that there are 24 children in the class, because I had to take sweets in today to celebrate his birthday last weekend, so I had to count out the right number for each child. Given my interest in nutrition and health, I should have taken in some fruit, but the tradition seems to be taking in sweets or cakes. I hope that we can change that over time.
I spoke this morning at Loughborough college about a health initiative and felt guilty that I had taken those sweets in. However, I noticed that my pedometer showed that I had already done 9,000 steps by 10 am when I arrived to speak at the meeting. I am now up to 27,500 steps, so I have probably made up for the little packet of sweets that I had this morning with my son. One of the most welcome things that we have managed to introduce is nursery provision for three and four-year-olds, in addition to reduced class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds.
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