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The hon. Gentleman argued that some schools will want to select by academic ability. He pretends that that does not mean the return of the grammar school, and that if some schools want to select by ability, all other schools can have their own individual ethos. In fact, when that system operates on the ground 80 per cent. of children are left in the equivalent of secondary moderns with no aspirations for attainment, which does not drive improvement across the system. I do not want to return to that, and I hope that when he thinks through the consequences of his policy he will draw back from it. His only criticism of the academies programme, as far as I could see, was that academies in our most
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disadvantaged areas are not allowed to select. His policy would promote the well-being of a few, not the many, but the policies in the White Paper will drive improvement across our school system by delivering the freedoms and accountabilities that those schools need to develop in the way that works best for them and their pupils.
The hon. Gentleman asked about bussing. I do not propose to force any child on to a bus, but we have to raise the aspirations of children in our most disadvantaged areas. We have a specialist school system. If a specialist school offers sport, music or another specialism of which children wish to take advantage, we should not prevent them from going to that school because of the cost of transport. We recommend in the White Paper that children from a low-income background be given help with the costs of transport.
The hon. Gentleman asked about discipline. The last time a right to discipline was recommended was in 1989, but the Government of the day rejected it. We will implement such a right, and we will implement all the other recommendations in the report from Sir Alan Steer's panel. Interestingly, that panel did not consider that the abolition of appeals panels would be in schools' interests. It knew what happens when appeals panels are abolisheddifficult cases end up in the courts. We have seen an example of that only recently. Head teachers know that that will not be in their own best interests.
The hon. Gentleman questions the role that local authorities have to play. We have articulated in the White Paper a clear, if radically reformed, new role for local authorities. They will be at the heart of our proposals for delivering the school system of the future. Yes, they will replace the school organisation committee and there will be a presumption that, where good schools want to expand, they should be able to. But to imagine that one could run a school system from Whitehall that caters not just for 500 grant-maintained schools, but for 23,000 schools is absurd. How would someone in Whitehall know what was wanted for schools in Bolton, what parents wanted delivered on the ground for schools in my constituency, what capital investment was needed, or what teachers were needed? It is ridiculous to suggest that that could be the case. Local authorities will have a new if radically reformed role under our schools White Paper.
Although the hon. Gentleman seeks to appear as the modern face of the Conservative party, what we see are policies which, at the first hint of scrutiny, start to unravelpolicies that serve the few, rather than the many. Ours are policies that will drive up standards right across our school system and particularly serve the needs of the most disadvantaged at the heart of our communities.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD):
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for her answer to the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). It was clear from that answer and from the reaction from those on the Conservative Benches that she has been thinking what they have been thinking. I doubt that the hon. Gentleman will copy his Witney predecessor and join Labour, but the Tory Opposition are being talked out of a job, whether or not he becomes leader.
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The fundamental problem with the plan is that it is about structures, not standards. We need to focus on what is happening in the classroom, not in the boardroom. On school freedom, the Minister has a case. The Government will have our support if they have really turned their back on top-down centrist control of English schools. We embrace freedom from Whitehall diktat, including diversity and new providers, but can the Minister confirm that her Whitehall Department will keep complete control of schools funding?
Is it not central Government, rather than local government, who have been stifling variety? Is it not the Treasury rules and her own Department that prevent communities building the schools they need? Can she tell us what powers the Chancellor has given up and what powers she is giving up? For without the Chancellor's signature on the White Paper, can we really expect irreversible change?
At first glance, it seems that today is not the end of local democratic involvement with education, contrary to the Prime Minister's weekend spin. Why, then, is the Secretary of State still seeking to hand over admissions policy to some schools, when it is the one policy that parents need their local community to keep? Does she not realise that handing over admissions risks a free-for-all between schools, producing a shambles that will confuse parents, not help them? If the Minister wants to see admission reform, why does she not free local authorities and their schools to collaboratefor instance, on banding admissions?
We want a variety of social markets in education, not the right hon. Lady's free market. In her model, who will speak up for the special needs child? Who will be the advocate for the looked-after child? Who will guarantee fairness and equality of opportunity? Her answer seems to be parent power. That may work in some places, but what happens where parents do not get involved, will not get involved or cannot get involved?
The Secretary of State talks of expanding schools and we accept that that can work, especially with school federations, but can she confirm that a school will have no control over its size even if existing parents value a small school ethos? What is to stop schools being forced to double in size? When it comes to choice, my party is pro-choicemeaningful choice that becomes possible by grasping the new opportunity of falling secondary school numbers. Can she confirm that Government figures show nearly 500,000 fewer children in secondary schools within 10 years? Can she confirm that even in London, where too many parents have not had real choice, the decline in pupil numbers equals 40 empty schools? Is that not the spare capacity that we need, both for meaningful parental choice and for raising quality and standards?
The Prime Minister has talked about independent schools. The future years of falling pupil numbers are the best time to copy the best bits of private schools and to introduce smaller classes and smaller schools, when we might have the quality local schools that every parent wants.
The Government's ideas will have almost no impact on one of the most scandalous statistics in British education today25 per cent. of 17-year-olds are not in
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full-time education or training. Radical reform would free up the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds, and revisiting the Tomlinson plans for diplomas would stretch our brightest children and re-engage the disaffected.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is the lack of new ideas for primary education. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the best way to improve secondary education is to ensure that more primary school leavers can read, write and add up? The real barrier to higher standards is that nearly 50 per cent. of 11-year-olds still cannot master all three Rs. The Secretary of State's focus on structures not standards will not change anything in any classroom anywhere in the country. The priority should be children's literacy, not the Prime Minister's legacy.
Our schools need reform, because the status quo is far from perfect, and we will champion that cause. In not using the opportunity of falling school rolls, Labour is designing policy for past educational problems rather than future challenges. The Liberal Democrats want schools to be free from Whitehall. Labour wants to retain
Mr. Speaker: Order. What the Liberal Democrats want has nothing to do with the statement. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] Order. The hon. Gentleman is questioning the right hon. Lady's statement, and he will ask questions about the statement. By the way, I am getting a bit weary the replies to the statement should be briefer, because Back Benchers have not been called and it is already 10 past four.
Mr. Davey: Why is Labour retaining central controls and keeping hold of the purse strings? Why is it not providing real choice for parents, and why is it not using the fall in school numbers to drive standards in all schools? Labour's structural approach will change little.
Ruth Kelly: In some senses, Mr. Speaker, it is hard to reply. The hon. Gentleman has made a list of eclectic points that do not address the kind of public service reform that we should deliver in our school system or how we should deliver excellence and equity for all.
The hon. Gentleman has, however, made a number of specific points, and I shall deal with them. He is right that we must concentrate on the three Rs. Surely he does not dispute the facts that we have increased the number of pupils gaining the right outcomes in reading, writing and arithmetic from 43 per cent. to 57 per cent. over the past eight years, which is a huge improvement. We are meeting our targets for English and maths, with almost four out of five children achieving the required level. He is also right that we must do more, and the White Paper sets aside sums to deliver further results in primary schools and, indeed, in secondary schools.
The transition years in secondary schools are particularly important. Where children fall behind in English and maths, we should enable them to attend specific catch-up classes to help sort out the basics, which will allow them to access the rest of the curriculum and make the most of the opportunities in secondary schools. The White Paper deals with how teaching and learning should be delivered and how we
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can create a more personalised, tailored system, so that everybody not only gets the basics right, but takes advantage of extra support and opportunities for the gifted and talented.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that falling school rolls raise several issues for the future. We will deal with those issues through the building schools for the future programme, which allows individual local authorities to take advantage of the capital investment on offer, to think out their educational vision for an area and to build schools in the right places that meet pupil need and parent demand. That programme is probably the biggest lever over falling rolls that any Government have ever used.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that some schools will not want to expand the number of pupils that they take because they pride themselves on the small-school ethos that they have developed for their pupils. We will not force any school to expand if it does not want to, but a successful school that wants to expand faces obstacles because of the interests represented on the school organisation committees. If the local authority assumes the role of strategic leader of the system, it can make better-informed decisions about what is right for an area.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned special needs and looked-after children. We deal with those two groups in detail in the White Paper. In the new admissions system, looked-after children will have priority in being considered for and getting into the best schools. In terms of special educational needs, we want to ensure the continuation of the situation whereby children with statements get priority and an automatic right of entry to those schools.
We want schools that are free to follow their curriculum and to develop their individual ethos but also free to work in collaboration with other schools to raise standards for everyone in their local area. That is what the White Paper is about.
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