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In the last minute, I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine).

Mr. Devine: Obviously, the word “profit” still causes problems to us old socialists. Can I present a scenario to the Paymaster General? A team could go from the informal arrangement to employer status in one season. It could go on a cup run, get a lot of money in and pay some of that money out, but if in the next season it were knocked out in the first round of the cup, it would be back to the old scenario. Is that correct?

Dawn Primarolo: That may well be the case. I suggest that my hon. Friend comes along to the meeting that has been arranged. If my hon. Friends give me a list of the specific questions in advance, I will do my best to cover in detail more of the tax-planning points rather than the general points about what is happening.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian on securing the debate, which has been excellent. I hope that I have been able to assuage fears that the provision is a blunt instrument to every club. I recognise that there are a number of detailed points that we need to deal with and answer and I look forward to doing so.

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State Schools (Independence)

11 am

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate a debate on setting our schools free, and I hope that it will be conducted in a spirit of inquiry and thoughtfulness. I am a member of the Education and Skills Committee and I am constantly struck by the degree of cross-party consensus and co-operation that I find there. I hope that our debate will be conducted in a similar spirit.

I do not wish to score party political points. Indeed, I see opposite me some of the Labour Members with whom I voted on the Education and Inspections Bill. We joined together in the Lobby to get that Bill through the House.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman did not vote with me. The only other person on the Government Benches who voted with him is the Minister, and I would expect that.

Mr. Carswell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out; it is indeed the case. I hope that the Minister and other Members will join together if not in the Lobby, then in this Chamber today, to find some consensus on how to improve education.

It needs to be said at the outset that not all schools with independence are good and that not all schools that conform to the micro-detail of Government diktat are necessarily bad. Far from it. We need to be careful not to assume that independent automatically necessarily means better.

I acknowledge the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), whose most excellent pamphlet on setting our schools free largely inspired the debate.

In office, political parties are inclined to argue that things are generally better than they are; in opposition, they are sometimes tempted to argue that things are worse than they sometimes are. My criticisms of the education system are not directed at any one Government. I want to make a broader point about failures in our education system that I believe are a product of a centralist system that has been in place for 20 or 30 years, if not longer.

The following facts prove that there is a problem in our education system. A quarter of 11-year-olds cannot read or write sufficiently well to allow them to tackle the secondary school curriculum. One in five school leavers are functionally illiterate and innumerate. The state has supposedly been looking after them and educating them for nine years, but it has failed in its most basic task.

Many school leavers arrive at university without the basic literary skills that they need for their coursework. That failure has been masked by extraordinary grade inflation. For example, between 1992 and 2002, when Governments of both parties were in office, the proportion of A grades awarded at A-level rose from 13 per cent. to nearly double that figure.

Those are the facts. However, we can debate the reason for that failure. I contend that the education system is failing because of over-centralisation and the
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quango state that administers our education system. That system is run at the behest of remote quangos and remote elites—schools adjudicators, curriculum and qualifications authorities and unaccountable bureaucrats in the local education authorities. Remote elites make decisions; local pupils, schools and parents take the rap. That is how our education system is run—almost regardless of which Minister holds office.

The quango state has run education not only badly in terms of output, but incredibly inefficiently. It has been estimated that about 45 per cent. of education spend does not go to the schools, but is sucked up by the education quango establishment. Those quangos—for instance, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, with its plush offices in London—always seem to have enough money for such things. Regardless of the fact that there might not be enough teachers in the classroom, local education authorities never seem to run out of bureaucrats.

The quango state absorbs an extraordinarily large amount of money that ought to be going to schools. The national curriculum is devised by distant experts. Targets and guidelines are set and imposed on schools. That process began in the early 1990s, if not before, but in recent years it has turned into an avalanche. Centralism is the problem. If we are honest, we will admit that Governments of all parties since the 1970s have thought that they could run education better from the centre.

Some on my side of the House might be tempted to mention grant-maintained schools. They might have been decentralising, but whatever freedoms the schools gained from their LEAs were offset by greater scrutiny and accountability through the national curriculum and targets set by central Government. Grant-maintained schools show how not to set schools free, as the mechanisms for further central control remained in place.

Instead, we need a bold new approach to decentralisation to devolve not so much just to town halls, but directly to parents, pupils and the schools themselves. We need to take power and responsibility away from the quango state and devolve it downwards directly to the users.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate; I know how passionately he feels about the subject. Each year, we all have constituents who are heartbroken to find that their child or children cannot go to the school they wish to go to because the local education authority has not provided enough places in that school. Does he agree that, in a radical overhaul of our school system, we must ensure that good schools can expand?

Mr. Carswell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I and many other Members have been approached an extraordinary number of times by parents who cannot understand why they are not allowed to exercise effective choice because of arbitrary boundaries and catchment areas. The system is wrong, and it needs to be changed.

We need to set schools free, and we could begin by allowing schools to control their own admissions
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policies. We should allow schools to have charitable status—what we might call trust status—and the freedom to set their own budgets. I shall say in a moment how we need to reform funding of the education system.

David Taylor: A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman suggested that a characteristic of an ideal system would be parents being able to get their children into the school of their choice, but he went on to speak of schools having their own admission criteria. Would not that mean schools selecting children rather than the other way round?

Mr. Carswell: I believe that if we gave schools the ability to manage their own admissions, in a few instances safeguards would need to be built in. For example, in a remote rural village where there was no effective choice, safeguards might be needed to ensure that no child was left out of the system and that no child was left behind. However, the number of cases in which such safeguards would have to apply would be few and far between. In most cases—indeed, overwhelmingly—if schools were allowed to set their own admissions criteria, few children would be excluded. There would always be a school for them. A school different from the one they attend at the moment might have to be chosen, but there would be effective choice.

Constituencies such as mine have a number of secondary schools, and if we were to scrap the arbitrary catchment areas, we would allow people a choice that they are currently denied.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I am a governor of a secondary school in Taunton. We recently had to appoint a new head teacher, and I was amazed by how little discretion the governors had in deciding the salary. Drawing on the point that the hon. Gentleman was making about allowing head teachers and governing bodies more budgetary discretion, should they have more freedom to, for example, pay or reward a distinguished teacher of French who has made the school admired throughout the area? A straitjacket seems to have been imposed on head teachers, which makes it difficult for them to reward excellence—and, for that matter, to allow greater advances in other parts of the school.

Mr. Carswell: The hon. Gentleman—given his comments, I am tempted to call him my hon. Friend—is absolutely right. He has given a good example of why greater flexibility and freedom for schools to set their own budgets, hire staff and set the terms and conditions for doing so could benefit individual schools.

The idea that we should determine such things centrally is wrong. As part of the package of independence, we should give schools the ability to hire staff—and, indeed, to fire them. With one or two safeguards, as teased out by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), schools could manage their own budgets, determine their own admissions criteria, and set the terms and conditions for hiring their staff.

Schools would also have the freedom to set their own curricula. On balance, we have come to the point of
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needing to advocate the abolition of the national curriculum. Some will be surprised to hear that, but my view is that the national curriculum—the nationalisation of the curriculum—has not imposed the greater rigour and higher standards that it was supposed to impose. In fact, in many instances it has done the opposite of what its architects initially intended. If schools were allowed to set their own curricula, those of us on the centre right would be reassured that we were likely to get a more “small c” conservative curriculum. There would be diversity and choice; people could shop around for a school with a curriculum that they wished for.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): What would happen if all the schools in a certain county or area decided not to adopt the kind of curriculum that parents want, and their head teachers decided to adopt a very progressive and dumbed down curriculum? What would happen to parents and children in such areas, which would offer no effective choice of a high-quality school?

Mr. Carswell: I cannot think of a single county in the country in which that would be the case if there were effective school independence and parental choice. However, I can think of a number of counties in which an extremely progressive curriculum is imposed with almost zero parental choice and almost zero freedom for schools to do differently. Under my scheme, we would get choice and a conservative outcome in terms of the content of the curriculum. Under the current system, there is a very non-conservative curriculum, and there is very little that parents can do about that.

I am not here to argue for a return to grant-maintained schools. There were errors to do with the centralised system of funding in the grant-maintained system. Nor am I here to defend the local education authorities; under my scheme, I would be happy to see certain aspects of the LEAs wither away.

Instead of centralising how local government manages its education budgets, we should try another, non-centralising way—a third way, if you like—of devolving control over school budgets. We could give every parent in the country the legal right to request and receive, in non-cash form, their share of their child’s local authority budget allocation. That share could be weighted by age, geography or indicators of social deprivation to ensure greater equity—I admit that.

Allowing parents the legal right to request and receive their child’s share of the local authority budget could be done simply and would ensure that there was effective choice, which is lacking under the current system. It could be done through a relatively simple, straightforward two-line Bill in Parliament and judicial fiat. The courts could ensure that it took effect.

What I suggest is not the same as some hideously complicated, centrally run, top-down national voucher scheme. Imagine the potential for IT failure under such a scheme; one has only to consider the history of some of the big Government IT projects to see what might happen. Nor do we need a new funding quango. That would enable future Governments of left or right to attach conditions to schools or parents for receipt of
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the funding. A simple legal right for parents to request and receive their share of local authority funding would solve the problem.

In looking back at the history of the national curriculum and of a centralised system of funding for grant-maintained schools, we see clearly a lesson that we on the centre right need to learn: rigour and higher standards cannot be imposed top-down, but will come about through being driven from the bottom up. To ensure that that happens, we need not only to set schools free and give them greater independence, but to give parents effective choice.

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Will he outline the difference between what he advocates and the pupil’s passport, which was his party’s policy when he was elected at the general election?

Mr. Carswell: The pupil’s passport is quite a centralising, complicated, formulaic measure. I must be frank: I never entirely understood its mechanisms, and I am not a big advocate of the big Government IT projects that such a scheme would necessarily entail. Given the history of the passport scheme at the Home Office, I do not think that a scheme with similar IT complications is called for in education.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman has a well deserved reputation for being refreshingly open and frank. Will he comment on a policy that his party has promoted for much of the time since 1997? His party has not yet put the policy of having a grammar school in every town into the grave with a stake through its heart. Does he think that that policy would be popular with people and parents?

Mr. Carswell: I began this debate by saying that I would try to bring a thoughtful spirit of inquiry to the Chamber, and I hope that we shall retain that.

When people talk about grammar schools, emotions quite often take over and the debate starts to generate more heat than light. I am not opposed to the extension of grammar schools, of which there are about 167 in the country, but I am much more interested in having a debate about education that would improve the quality of life of all our children in all schools in the country. We need a debate far wider than an exclusive discussion of grammar schools. By all means, we can debate those schools, but I deliberately phrased the title of the debate so that it focused on the interests of the many, not the few.

It is important that any policy should be assessed according to the impact that it might have on the most vulnerable. I feel that strongly, given my experience with children with special educational needs in my constituency. If we are to give schools greater independence and parents effective power, we need to ask ourselves about the impact that that might have on the more vulnerable in our education system.

For me, the key critical test, first and foremost, is whether such children would be better off. We could come up with a system that ensured that. Too often, the statementing process to which those with special educational needs are subjected has put vulnerable
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individuals at the mercy of education experts. Such children have been more dependent on remote experts and, on occasion, have suffered as a result.

The immoral policy of enforced inclusion and the immoral closure of specialist schools, such as the Leas school in Clacton in my constituency, which help those with special educational needs, are further manifestations of what happens when schools, parents and pupils surrender their independence to experts happy to dictate what they believe is right for other people’s children.

By reforming the statementing process, we could ensure that greater independence meant that children with special educational needs were better off. Such children’s statements should not only be specific in spelling out what is necessary to help them, but include a form of financial entitlement that indicates the LEA money to which the child is entitled to have their needs met. If we introduced such a system and made schools more independent, we could show that, demonstrably, the more vulnerable children in our education system benefited the most.

I shall wrap up my remarks and open the Floor to debate by drawing a few conclusions. There will be those who are opposed to ideas about parent power and setting schools free. Those who oppose greater independence for parents and schools are, in essence, stuck in a regressive 1950s mindset. It is progressive to give parents greater choice and to set schools free. The days of deference to remote experts are rightly over. We who argue for school independence and parental choice are the real progressives now. We need a system of education that offers genuine pluralism that cannot be dictated from the centre, and with pluralism and choice will come genuine innovation.

To conclude, the only people in this Room who are experts on what is right for children are those of us who are parents and who have the expertise to decide what is right for our child. The days of national politicians dictating what sort of education every child should receive should be over.

11.21 am

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), who has made an excellent and thoughtful speech. He is right to use the mechanism of this alternative Chamber to have an alternative kind of debate in which we are less concerned with day-to-day politics and more concerned about developing long-term policy and, indeed, philosophy. I hesitate to use the word “philosophy” in the House of Commons, as I do not want to be accused of being an intellectual, which would be political death.

My hon. Friend made an important contribution in the way that he introduced this debate. He was kind enough to mention a pamphlet that I recently penned, but I claim no particular credit for any ideas in it, as it contains nothing new. There is little that is new in the debate on education. Many of these ideas have been around for many years, but I believe that there is a new determination to question all existing orthodoxies and to be prepared to consider what happens in other parts of the world and, indeed, Europe.

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