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Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement—on the Conservative Benches, I think that feeling goes fairly wide. I am also grateful for an early copy of the White Paper, especially as I understand that 5,000 copies were pulped last night as the Cabinet could not actually agree on the policy.

Our approach to the Secretary of State's proposals will be straightforward: wherever the Government promote rigour, encourage discipline, give schools more autonomy and parents more choice, we will support them. And, as we read that the Chancellor, the Deputy Prime Minister and many other Labour Members are against her, she will need all the support that she can get, but there is one question that jumps out of the White Paper. Eight years ago, the Government abolished grant-maintained schools. Let us remember that those were state schools, free of local authority control and able to set their own culture and ethos. Does that sound familiar? So why has it taken eight years to get right back to where they started?

Let me take each of the key issues in turn. First, on school autonomy, all the evidence shows that standards rise when schools are free to innovate, free to diversify, and free to specialise. The question for the Government is this: will today's proposals lead to real autonomy? Real autonomy means schools controlling their own finances. So will the Secretary of State confirm that, under her plans, funding will still go through local education authorities and not directly to schools? Real autonomy means that head teachers are in control, not tied up in centralised rules, regulations and bureaucracy. So will she take action to cut paperwork, including the current self-evaluation reports that run to hundreds of pages and drive head teachers up the wall?

What guarantee can the Secretary of State give that the White Paper will not add to bureaucracy? Can she explain the point of the new schools commissioner? Can she tell us whether her new parents' councils will replace governing bodies or whether they will be set up in addition to them? If Government want real autonomy—they will have our support if they deliver it—can she confirm that those independent schools in the state sector will own their buildings and land, employ their own staff and have the freedom to expand and the ability to opt out of national agreements?

The White Paper shows a complete muddle about the role of local education authorities. Can the Secretary of State tell us how much independence those schools will really have? Can she explain why, on page 28— hon. Members will be interested in this—it says:

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So can she explain what these new freedoms are? That gives every impression of having been written by a deeply divided committee—I think that we can call it the Cabinet. [Interruption.]

We support the proposal to get independent providers into the state sector, but we have heard that so many times from the Government: we heard it in 1998, 2002 and earlier this year. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, so far, just one—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise. Mr. Cawsey, you are usually a very quiet Member of Parliament and I do not like to tell you off, but you are far too near the Speaker's Chair to shout or to be shouting.

Mr. Cameron: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, so far, only one additional independent school has come into the state sector? The White Paper talks of a new role for LEAs. Can she tell us what will be done to stop them preventing new providers from coming into the sector? If they are to replace school organisation committees—another set of quangos that Labour set up and is now abolishing—will not the problem get even worse?

The next point is the expansion of good schools. Education Ministers have repeatedly given us assurances from the Dispatch Box that the surplus places rule did not exist. Yesterday, the Prime Minister confirmed that it did and that it would be scrapped. Why has it taken so long for the Government to identify and get rid of the roadblocks to giving us more good school places? Should we not conclude that we have had surplus Ministers, as well as surplus places? [Hon. Members: "More!"] There is plenty more.

The White Paper praises city academies. Conservative Members back academies because they are just like the city technology colleges that we set up in the first place. Can the Secretary of State tell us how she will avoid the real danger that they end up replicating failed comprehensives in smart new buildings? Will she give them real freedoms, including over admissions? Will business backers be able to cut waste and open these buildings to the whole community so that they can be engines of regeneration, not just islands of investment?

The next issue is a difficult one: admissions. We all want to move from the situation in which we have selection by house price to one of genuine diversity in schools with parents having choice. However, the Government have created total confusion over this issue. One briefing has suggested that there will be compulsory banding and then the bussing of children across LEAs. That would represent top-down social engineering beyond even the wildest dreams of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Will the Secretary of State rule out today bussing that is designed to meet some arbitrary central admissions quota?

The White Paper argues that streaming and setting should be the norm in all schools—we agree. In its 1997 manifesto, Labour said the same thing. What has it been doing for the past eight years? Why has it taken three manifestos, nine Acts of Parliament, five Green Papers, four White Papers, two strategy documents and
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four Education Secretaries before anything has been done about that? If the Government are serious about standards, is it not time to reform the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to insist on rigour in exam standards and to give heads the final say on discipline and exclusions? Will she confirm that the White Paper shows once again that the Government are keeping appeals panels? Why do they not scrap them?

Yesterday the Prime Minister said that this was a pivotal moment. Today he says that it is a historic turning point. Tomorrow I expect that we will have the hand of history on his shoulder again. In the past eight years, we have had lines in the sand, final moments and final chances, but this has been pivotal for parents, teachers and children all along.

When it comes to reforming education, is it not the case that the Chancellor will not have it, the Cabinet does not like it, the Back Benchers will not wear it, the Deputy Prime Minister cannot bear it and the teaching unions and Labour LEAs will try to stop it? Conservative Members fear that only the worst parts of the White Paper will be implemented and the best will be forgotten. Is it not the case that the only way in which the best ideas in the White Paper will have a chance of being introduced will be if we have a Government who believe heart, head and soul in rigour, choice and autonomy? Is not that the message of today's statement?

Ruth Kelly: I am truly delighted that the hon. Gentleman has come here today to welcome the proposals in the White Paper. It might be only his fourth appearance at the Dispatch Box, but I think that it is a sign of his increasing political maturity that when there are well-thought-out proposals that will make a difference to our school system, he can stand there and welcome them, no matter what that might mean for his own political ambitions, or anything else relating to his side of the House. I hope that the support that he has offered us today will mean that his party—whoever leads it—will support the legislation that we will bring forward to enact the proposals that I have set out today. I look forward to his and his colleagues' support in the Division Lobby.

I was glad that the hon. Gentleman did not challenge the fact that there have been significant improvements in our school system over the past eight years and the fact that we have transformed the situation that we inherited in 1997. However, he should recognise that that has been achieved not only through reform—although reform there has been with the literacy hour, the numeracy hour and the other reforms that I mentioned—but because of the investment that we have been putting in. By 2007–08, Labour will have doubled per pupil spending since 1997. He might not have sat in the House for very long, but during that short time, he has voted against every single opportunity to put investment back into our schools where it is needed. He has also voted against innovation in our schools, modernising school governance and laying the foundation for work force remodelling. I am thus pleased to hear that he is changing his party's political tune. However, today was his first big test, so I had rather hoped that he would have done his homework just a little better.

The hon. Gentleman thinks that our new trust-school system will represent the re-creation of grant-maintained schools. There could be nothing more different from the
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new model that we are proposing for all schools than the failed grant-maintained system of the past. There are some similarities.—[Interruption.] Let us see what they are. Grant-maintained schools had classrooms, teachers and books. I have to admit that there are some similarities, but that is where they end. Grant-maintained schools could set whatever admissions arrangements they wanted, they could select the best pupils and were encouraged to opt out of the local family of schools. Indeed, they were bribed to do so, because they were given unfair funding that discriminated against other schools. They operated on the basis of unfair admissions that privileged elite schools by cream-skimming pupils from our state schools. Grant-maintained schools received the only capital funding on offer in the system. Anyone who remembers those days will recall the two-tier system that emerged. Indeed, grant-maintained schools defined themselves through opposition to other schools in the system. They did the best for their children, but not for others.

We are not proposing the return of the grant-maintained school, because our schools rightly insist on fair funding, fair admissions and fair accountability. We want autonomous schools that drive improvement for their own pupils and others by sharing that expertise and success across the school system, as we have set out in the schools White Paper. The hon. Gentleman asked what school autonomy means in practice. Schools will have the opportunity to develop their own mission, purpose and ethos, and to work with an external partner if they think that that is in the interests of parents and pupils. They will be able to manage their own assets and employ their own staff. They will be able to control the funding distributed to them by local authorities and ring-fenced through the dedicated school grant. To argue that they should be free of accountability and should not have to participate in the self-evaluation scheme that head teachers themselves have requested from us is absurd. The way to drive improvement through the system is for one head teacher to learn what works from another so that they can apply it in their school to improve standards for their own pupils and others.

The hon. Gentleman argued for autonomy on admissions but, once again, his proposals are not thought through. I read an article that he wrote in the Evening Standard last week in which he said that over time all schools should be able to determine their own admissions procedures and, if they wanted to do so, select pupils.

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