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There is extraordinary diversity in educational provision in other parts of Europe. There is not a view in other European countries that there must be only one educational model. For instance, Sweden, which has a tradition of many years of social democratic government—centre-left government with short periods of centre-right government—has introduced a radical universal voucher scheme, which imposes controls on admissions. The scheme has resulted in an explosion of new, privately run schools that appear to be popular and to cater for a need.

In Holland, which does not have a reputation for being a particularly conservative country, there has long been a tradition of the state, in effect, funding private schools. In France, the salaries of teachers in private schools are paid by the state. There is not a view in other European countries that there must be a great divide between the public and private sectors.

In that context, I welcome the speech which I understand the leader of my party gave today in which he praised people who work in the public sector. It has always been the view of the Conservative party that we must mix and match. One cannot say as a general proposition that the public sector or the private sector is always best. We are prepared to advocate a public-private partnership, which exists in other countries but not in this one. In this country, where the fees of most private schools are way beyond what most ordinary people can afford, only 7 per cent. of children go to private schools. How can most of the people who work in the public sector, for instance, possibly afford boarding school fees of up to £18,000 a year, or private school fees of perhaps £9,000 or £10,000 a year, out of taxed income? The situation is different in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Holland, where there is extraordinary diversity.

However, let us not discuss private schools only. Other European countries are moving away from central direction of state education, so let us discuss that for a moment. Speaking as a parent, I know a great deal about French education. I sent all my children to the French lycée in London for a time. My mother and father were brought up in France. That country’s education system has a reputation for being centrally driven. There is a joke that the Minister of Education in Paris knows that at 10.30 on a Wednesday morning, every child in France is opening the same geography textbook, but that simply is not true anymore. For many years, France has been moving away from a centrally driven education system.

Incidentally, it is also instructive that most middle-class parents in France are happy to use state education, wherever they live. It is of an excellent standard, and we must ask why that is the case. I have alluded to the private schools in France and the fact that salaries in those schools are paid by the state. People use such schools for a particular purpose, but most people are happy with state education, which, increasingly, is not centrally driven.

A point that must be considered in this debate is whether this country has taken a wrong turning since the 1960s. Did my party, when it was in power, make a fundamental error? There were two things that we could have done.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Harwich that the national curriculum,
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whose genesis was in the time of the Conservative Government, is too dirigiste and therefore should be progressively abandoned?

Mr. Leigh: I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. Funnily enough, yesterday I spoke at length to Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, about this debate. He reminded me that the national curriculum was introduced for perfectly good reasons. We were concerned that kids in many parts of the country did not seem to be achieving the basic standards in education that we expected, and it was an honest attempt to raise standards nationally.

The national curriculum had a reasonably loose structure when it was introduced, but it has become altogether too bureaucratic and prescriptive. I agree with my hon. Friend that we could progressively move to a system in which individual state schools are independent. That is the vision that the Prime Minister set out in his White Paper, which I fully support, and I believe that in his heart of hearts, he would agree with much if not all of what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Gibb: Does my hon. Friend accept that it would be perfectly possible for Ministers of an incoming Conservative Government to return the national curriculum to the original vision?

Mr. Leigh: I am pleased that my hon. Friend made that intervention. As part of this think-piece debate, it is important that we explore such nuances and how our party would approach the problem of improving educational standards. My hon. Friend, who is totally committed to education, believes and has great trust that a future Conservative Government could return the national curriculum to something like what it was before. He is worried about the state of the educational establishment, particularly teacher training colleges, and believes that once he becomes a Minister—we all sincerely hope that he does become an Education Minister—he can impose his will.

It is important that my hon. Friend and I should conduct this friendly debate in public as well as in private, as it informs how we will develop policy during the next three years while we are in opposition. With respect to him, one cannot impose one’s view from the centre. Incidentally, that is the view of Chris Woodhead and other people I know who work in the state sector. If there are 20,000 schools in this country, that is impossible. Whatever one says and does, whatever one’s commitment and however long one is allowed to be a Minister—and Ministers’ powers are somewhat limited—if schools do not agree, they will simply not go along, and my hon. Friend knows that.

When I have visited schools in my constituency and talked about synthetic phonics—now they are in fashion, but a few years ago they were not—teachers have told me, “Well, we had all these circulars from the state, but we just binned them and carried on doing what we know best; we’re professionals.” Whatever my hon. Friend’s good intentions, even if he tried to return the national curriculum to a pure state of more traditional conservative teaching—if it were possible to devise such a thing—if head teachers and teachers on the ground and teacher training colleges wanted to ignore it, they would.

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Mr. Jeremy Browne: I hope that the hon. Gentleman can clarify something because I, too, am confused by the position advanced by the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). As I understand it, he said that giving schools and head teachers greater autonomy would lead to a more uniform curriculum. He expressed the concern that there would be a whole county in which every school offered the same package of education. That has not been my experience of head teachers being given greater discretion over setting classes. Why would the official spokesman for the hon. Gentleman’s party be concerned about that possibility?

Mr. Leigh: I do not think that that would happen. If the model that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich discussed were accepted, and head teachers had genuinely independent powers over their curriculum, is it really believable that every school in an entire county or large town would follow the same progressive model? In fact, under that model, other schools would develop and parents would vote with their feet. Do we have no self-confidence? As Conservatives, we believe in a traditional form of teaching. We believe that that works and that many modern teaching fashions have corrupted education. Do we really have so little confidence in professionals, teachers and parents that we believe that if they were given complete freedom, all of them in an entire county would move to an extreme form of progressive education?

If that happened, however, it would of course happen under my hon. Friend’s model presumably only because that was what teachers, head teachers and parents wanted. If they want it, let them have it—but I do not think that it would happen.

Mr. Gibb: In response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), my comments related to what would happen if we abolished the national curriculum, which I am totally against. To take up my hon. Friend’s point about whether Ministers can determine matters, I am not saying that central Government can or indeed should prescribe everything that happens in schools; what I am saying is that Ministers can determine the content of national curriculum documents that emanate from the Department for Education and Skills.

My understanding, from what I have experienced in my current role and as an MP for nine years, is that too often Ministers from both parties have not been engaged in the detailed minutiae of what emanates from the Department. We live in a democracy, where accountability rests here, so it is important that Ministers should have detailed knowledge of the issues and be engaged in them. An incoming Conservative Government would take that view. I am afraid that there are too many documents currently emanating from the Department that do not reflect the wishes of Ministers, the public or the party in power.

Mr. Leigh: I wish my hon. Friend well. He is right: Ministers can take charge and issue whichever documents they want. Whether those documents will be obeyed in all or most schools, I do not know. That would rather depend on whether they went with the flow of what teachers wanted. If such documents went with the flow, they would be obeyed; if not, they would not.

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Mr. Gibb: I am sorry to intervene again, for the final time, but the point is that a lot of these documents are influential on teachers. Most teachers with whom I come into contact are conscientious, and will lean on documents that emanate from the DFES. The problem, particularly with phonics and the teaching of reading, has been that teachers have leant on the framework document but it has been wrong. The searchlights model is the wrong method for teaching children to read, yet many conscientious teachers, doing their best, have relied on it to the detriment of many children’s reading skills. My point is not that we should be more prescriptive or take more powers but that where we have influence we should use it the right way, based on evidence of the pedagogical methods and curriculum that works and that parents want.

Mr. Leigh: I agree completely. Great—let us try that, but we have to be realistic about our abilities, especially when we are dealing with the educational establishment that we have.

The opinion of one professor of education writing recently, which Chris Woodhead mentioned in a speech, is that

Does that mean anything to you, Mr. Chope? It means nothing to me. Then there is the commissioner for London schools—an official person, presumably—who said recently:

That is what we are dealing with, and what my hon. Friend will be dealing with as a Minister.

We will go on debating the issue, but let us not get any more bogged down. I must not speak for too long, because others might want to get in. However, my hon. Friend has raised an interesting debate that need not necessarily be the preserve of members of the Conservative party. I have great hopes for the hon. Member for Taunton, whose early intervention convinced me that there are people in the Liberal party who also believe in localism and local determination—I hope that there are such people in the Labour party, too.

Such people might follow us in supporting the concept of schools being given increasing powers over their budgets if, for instance, there were a shortage of maths or language teachers. Indeed, there is a great crisis in languages in state schools, as well as in mathematics and science teaching, and it is independent schools that are saving sciences and languages in universities. That is something that the Government should be worried about. I hope that all hon. Members here would agree that schools should be given more independence over their budgets, if that is what they wish.

The great divide is of course over selection. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich was again right to say that we should not get bogged down in the debate about grammar schools. That debate has gone—it is finished, it is in the past. A Conservative Government would not need to say that we will introduce a grammar school in every town. That was one line in the 1997 manifesto. It is not going to return and the debate
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is in the past. All we need to do is give head teachers and their governing bodies increasing powers over admissions.

It was said earlier that the only result of doing that would be that schools would choose pupils, and that pupils and parents would not be able to choose schools. It is claimed that if we give head teachers greater power over admissions, large numbers of schools will suddenly become ultra-selective and turn people away, and there will be no decent schools for kids. Indeed, I am not sure that my children could have got into grammar schools, although I am not for or against those schools—that is irrelevant.

For the sake of argument, does the Minister or anybody else think that if we gave head teachers increasing independence, there would be a revolution in our schools? Teachers are actually quite conservative in how they run their schools. Those running a pure comprehensive school are allowed to test anyway, to create a pure comprehensive system, in which there are three bands, of the most able, the middle and the less able. If comprehensive schools were given the freedom to select who they wanted, some might become more academic, some might remain comprehensive and some might admit more pupils of less academic ability. We do not know.

There are schools in the independent sector that cater for all abilities. There are Winchesters and the Etons, which are highly academic and highly selective, but there are also many independent schools that cater for middle and lower ability ranges. I therefore urge hon. Members to forget the party political polemic about grammar schools and to think about giving more freedom and responsibility to head teachers to run their own schools in their own way. Let us imagine that we did that and allowed schools to run their own budgets—we allowed, in effect, all schools to become grant maintained. The problem with the creation of grant-maintained schools was that only some schools became grant maintained, so there was a dispute about whether those schools were receiving preferential capital funding. Let us imagine that all schools had the freedoms of grant-maintained schools in respect of hiring and firing, selecting and deselecting, their budgets and paying French teachers and others. I do not believe that there would be a revolution in those schools, but I do believe that there would be a revolution in terms of choice and freedom, and that that would be extraordinarily beneficial to our system.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that if there were a free-for-all on admissions, some schools would voluntarily select pupils who were less academically able and who came from more challenging backgrounds, such as children with special educational needs and looked-after children? Is he really saying that he believes such pupils would be catered for without some protection from an admissions code and without the local authority having a role to play in admissions?

Mr. Leigh: My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and I, and all others who advance the point of view that we have expressed, accept that there have to be special measures under the statementing procedure. We are critical of the present statementing procedure. I
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have my own experience of it. We believe that it is overly bureaucratic and could be simplified and that a financial value should be attached to the statement. However, we all accept that there will always be under any system a financial subsidy—whether or not it is called a statement and whether it is run centrally or by local authorities—to assist children with special educational needs. Yes, I take that completely on board, but I believe that if we moved to a system in which head teachers were free to set their own admissions criteria, we would have a vast range of schools catering for different abilities, and most schools, as happens in the private sector, would cater for all abilities. I know that Labour Members cannot philosophically accept that—it is anathema to them—but I urge them to have more confidence in head teachers and not to believe that all head teachers would simply go ruthlessly for the brightest 10 per cent. of children. There simply are not enough of those children to go round.

My hon. Friend and I are talking about the money following the pupil. We are arguing that instead of the money being siphoned off by central and local government, it should, through a small funding council, go direct to schools. That would allow each child to have, under the present set-up, £6,000 or even more, and there would be a school for everyone.

Mr. Carswell: If we gave schools greater choice, certain schools that are currently barred from taking on children with special educational needs would do so. Market Field school, just outside my constituency, is trying to expand, but is in effect prevented from doing so by educational experts. If we adopted the scheme that my hon. Friend and I are advocating, a school such as Market Field would expand and welcome children with special educational needs—children whom other mainstream schools may find it more difficult to cater for. More children would have their needs catered for than under the current system.

Mr. Leigh: I am sure that the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) accepts that a lot of disguised selection goes on at the moment. All those of us who deal with the education system know that. For instance, I know comprehensives in London that will do anything they can to avoid taking in children with statements. A lot of cheating goes on in relation to SATs—standard assessment tests—league tables and all the rest of it. It would be wrong to think that at the moment we have a comprehensive system that is as pure as the driven snow and works. Well, let us deal with whether it does work. That is the crucial question. Are we providing the education system that we should be, given all the investment that has been put in? I give credit to the Government because they have increased investment in education, but are they satisfied that every extra pound of taxpayers’ money that they are spending is producing results?

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