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Is the Minister satisfied with the level of education available to our children? Is he worried about the National Audit Office report showing that 1 million of our children are in failing or coasting schools? If he is satisfied with the present system, why is he supporting the Education and Inspections Bill? Why is there so much controversy over these issues in his own party?
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Why does he believe that there must be more diversity? He will probably say that the debate just shows that he is right. There are people to the left and to the right of him, the cannons are thundering and he is going down the third way, the middle route—all the stuff we hear from new Labour Ministers—but they, who are now in charge, must be very worried about that.

My final point relates to the most controversial part of what my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich said and what some of us in my party are trying to convince those on our Front Bench of, in the truly democratic and open party that we have. We strongly believe, as my hon. Friend said, that parents should have a right to opt out of the state system if they want to and that they should be allowed to take the cost of state education, which they have contributed to all their lives as taxpayers, out of the state system and into the private system. That is happening increasingly around the world and is very popular, particularly with marginalised people. Black people in ghetto areas in large United States cities like the voucher: it allows them to escape from the ghetto. It could be called a voucher or an education credit. I find one particular description rather attractive and I believe that the idea could be made quite popular. I am talking about a parent saying, “I have a right to this money. This is my right for my child. I can take this £6,000 where I want. I can leave it in existing state schools or take it to new schools.”

That would be good for the private sector, which is too cosy at the moment. Independent schools might not email one another any more because they are worried about being reported to the Office of Fair Trading, but we all know that it is an extraordinary coincidence that they all seem to charge the same fees. However, many other people are entering the independent sector, and surely it is a new Labour idea to encourage choice, diversity and new entrants into the private sector, because new Labour is not against the private sector, is it?

Jim Knight: As ever, I listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s fascinating ideas. I am just intrigued as to whether he has costed this proposal, given that at the moment people who send their children to private schools receive no state funding. What is the dead-weight cost of his proposal?

Mr. Leigh: I am delighted to answer that question, because I have thought about the issue a lot. I have been arguing for this proposal for many years, and my colleagues on various Treasury teams have said, “Oh, it’s a wonderful idea, Edward, but of course we can’t do a dead-weight cost.” My idea is that we would do it incrementally. If there were an incoming Conservative Government, we would say that we would provide a voucher, a credit, a right to opt out in the first year of the new Act operating. The first year to which it would apply would be year R, the next year would be year R plus year 1 and the next year would be year R plus year 1 plus year 2. The scheme would roll out over 14 years. Therefore, I am not arguing for myself, because by the time that happened, all my children would have left school. I fear that you, Mr. Chope, would be in the same sad position. We would not benefit from the proposal.

Mr. Jeremy Browne: Your grandchildren might.

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Mr. Leigh: Yes, our grandchildren might; why not? There is in effect no dead-weight cost because the scheme applies only to future children. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, the shadow Minister, agrees that it is at least an intriguing idea that we could think about. I think that it would be quite popular and I hope that it appeals to our Treasury colleagues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich. So far, the debate has been very interesting. We shall shortly hear the Front-Bench speeches. I hope that, in the spirit of the debate, those speaking from the Front Benches will not talk simply in party political terms, but will open their hearts in the way that I know Ministers of the Crown love doing and will think ahead to how we can provide a truly effective education for all our children.

11.49 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) on securing the debate. I shall comment on a few of the issues raised. I was somewhat surprised at how little reference there was to the debate that we have been having over the past few months on the Education and Inspections Bill, which I believe strikes the right balance between moving away from a very centralised, local education authority-controlled education system towards more independence for schools. However, some ideas flagged up today by Conservative Members go too far down that route.

On admissions, when I intervened earlier the focus of the debate was very much on pupils with special educational needs, to whom it was said a price tag is attached which acts as an incentive to take in such children. I was looking at the matter in a broader context, in relation to pupils who might be termed less desirable from the point of view of a head teacher who wants the school to do well in the league tables. In my constituency, for example, there are pupils from refugee backgrounds who have English as their second language, and whose parents, often, are illiterate, so that they do not receive support at home. What would happen to them?

I welcome the move to give more power to head teachers and parents. I think that, often, those at the chalk face in the teaching profession know what is best for children. Parents, too, obviously know what is best for them, but that does not necessarily apply across the board. A great many parents, because of their educational background or social circumstances, do not have all that great a role in their children’s education at present. I welcome the moves in the Education and Inspections Bill to give the local authority the role of parents’ champion and of supporting parents in exercising a greater say in their children’s education. However, there will always be some children whose parents are not the best people to make those choices for them. There must be a mechanism to enable other people to supervise the child’s education and make the right choices.

The hon. Member for Harwich frequently used the term “expert” pejoratively, which is quite demeaning to people who work in the education profession. I recently met, in my constituency, a group of educationists who work with children who have special educational needs,
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and they are devoted to making sure that children in the city of Bristol get the best education. To dismiss their contribution and the expertise that they have built up by working with children, parents and teachers over the years is going too far. The hon. Gentleman also talked about local education authorities all in the same breath, as though all were equally bad. There are local education authorities that do an incredibly good job of ensuring that schools perform well and give pupils the best deal.

That leads me to my main points. I am in the unfortunate position, I suppose, of representing the place that has the worst-performing local education authority in the country as far as state secondary schools are concerned. It is now adrift at the bottom of the league tables by about 5 per cent. As the Secretary of State would tell hon. Members, even Hull is performing better than Bristol these days. We accept that we have a serious problem. It is not a recent development. Over many years the local authority has failed to tackle the problem of underperformance in Bristol’s state schools. We have schools where not even one in five pupils achieve five good GCSEs. In two schools serving my constituency, with a very diverse intake of pupils, not one African-Caribbean child achieved five good GCSEs last year.

People admit that the state school system in Bristol is failing pupils. As a result there has been a mass exodus from Bristol schools, either into the private sector or out to schools in Gloucestershire and Somerset. It is estimated that about 50 per cent. of parents choose to abandon Bristol’s state secondary schools as a result of that poor performance. I accept that the local authority has not got to grips with that, and although there has been some incremental improvement and the school results were up last year by a tiny percentage, unless there is change on a radical scale we shall fail another generation of children.

That is why I welcome some of the proposals in the Education and Inspections Bill to give schools more independence. I have in my constituency a school that is a shining example of what happens when schools are given more independence. It is one of the first city academies. Before what was called the St. George school became an academy it was one of the most unpopular with parents and one of the most under-subscribed schools in Bristol. Parents went to great lengths to avoid sending their children there. It serves a deprived area and parents in the locality do not have high incomes, but they would still scrape together the money to send their children to private schools or bus them out of the county, because they did not want to send their kids to St. George. The pupils were disaffected and the exam results were dismal.

When St. George became a city academy and got the independence—and, admittedly, the capital injection that went with that—things turned around dramatically. In the past year, 51 per cent. of pupils gained five or more good GCSEs. That was a 19 per cent. increase on the previous year. There are some schools where not even 19 per cent. get five GCSEs in the first place; it is a fantastic increase. The academy is now the most improved school in Bristol and one of the best performing academies in the country.

That success is all the more remarkable in the light of the intake of pupils at the academy, 35 per cent. of
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whom have free school meals. That compares to a national average of about 10.5 per cent. and a Bristol-wide average of less than 10 per cent.—about 9.3 per cent. Sixty per cent. of the pupils in the academy come from visible ethnic minorities and 31 languages are spoken there. Many pupils come from refugee families and live under the constant threat of deportation or have endured traumatic situations to get to the school. Often they start at the school with a limited grasp of English, but leave with a very good education. They have a real pride in their school.

I do not say that all that has been achieved at the academy is due to independence, but whenever I have visited the school it has been clear that the head teacher can mould what happens there to the needs of the people who attend it. For example, he is working with the Institute of Financial Services on piloting a financial capability study, which teaches children the basic facts about handling money—finance—and how to run their finances in future life. From speaking to IFS representatives I know that those children go home and teach their parents how to do the same. The school is in an area with a significant financial exclusion problem, but it is also in a city that is fast becoming one of the biggest financial services centres in the country, and the curriculum is being tailored both to deal with problems that pupils and their families might experience in the wider world, and to give them a leg up into the job market. They will get a diploma, on completing the course, equivalent to a GCSE.

Mr. Gibb: I am enjoying the hon. Lady’s speech enormously. She is making a principled and honest speech about the schools in her area and it is very interesting. I want to ask the Minister, through her, about the new qualification, which has been recognised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It may not be called either a GCSE or an A-level, because of the proprietary control of those names exercised by the three examining bodies. Will the Minister address that point? Why can the new qualification not be called a GCSE or A-level? That is what it really is.

Kerry McCarthy: I agree about that. I believe the qualification has been accredited with exactly the same value as an A-level for university admissions, but there is always a danger that it will be seen as a lesser qualification, because it does not carry that tag.

Something else that the academy’s head teacher has done is to offer pupils payments according to their exam results. Staff discuss with pupils, before they sit their exams, the grades that they hope for. A system is operating in which, if they exceed expectations, they get an extra £10 or so. Pupils tend, at the end of the year, to walk away with £300 or £400. That is something that middle-class parents do all the time. They promise their kids that if they do well in their exams they can have driving lessons, a computer or a holiday. The head teacher can do something similar through managing the school budget. I spoke to a group of pupils who had just finished their GCSEs last year, and although it was not the only incentive for them to work, as they were a quite motivated bunch of children anyway, knowing that they would finish their GCSEs with money in their pocket was an incentive too.

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Mr. Jeremy Browne: I am uneasy about that concept. What makes people uncomfortable about the new variant of Labour is that, instead of education being seen as a process of enriching oneself, widening horizons, becoming broad-minded and gaining experiences and opportunities that one would not otherwise gain, everything is brought down to the lowest common denominator, which is a monetary award for passing exams. Surely education is more varied, interesting and diverse than that.

Kerry McCarthy: I accept that point to a degree, but we are talking about pupils from families with little spare household income. As I said, middle-class parents do that sort of thing all the time by way of reward, and the pupils whom I spoke to were motivated by their enjoyment of the lessons at the school, by having had good careers guidance, and by being motivated to do further study or go to university. That was their prime motivation, but some value was also attached to their getting the qualification. As I said, many parents recognise that that is sometimes an incentive when pupils have to slave over their books long into the night.

The involvement of sponsors and the wider community will be crucial to academies and the trust schools proposed under the Education and Inspections Bill. Those factors was perhaps lacking in the vision outlined by the hon. Members for Harwich and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). This is not only about parents and teachers making decisions, but about the wider community being very much involved in how its schools are run. The academy in my constituency is sponsored by the university of the West of England, Bristol Rovers football club and the chamber of commerce. We have a real problem with the school staying-on rates in Bristol—indeed, we are way below the average, and Britain, as we know, performs very badly—so it is important that we involve potential employers and sponsors.

I end with a plea to the Minister. In my discussions with Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills and the Treasury, there has been a real issue about the VAT status of academies and other schools, and I suspect that the same applies to foundation schools. Schools want to open their facilities to the community, but if they do so for more than 10 per cent. of their opening hours there is a possibility that they will be penalised and have to pay back the VAT exemption on the capital investment that they made. The Minister is probably well aware of the issue, and I simply urge him to bear it in mind when he responds.

12.2 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope. It might surprise some hon. Members to hear that I was the keynote speaker at the Independent Schools Bursars Association conference about three weeks ago. It was an enjoyable event, and I was pleased to receive the invitation. I met a lot of independent schools’ bursars and got an invitation to visit Eton, which I might take up once I have visited all the schools in my constituency.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) on securing the debate, which is very timely, given the stage that we have reached in the
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education debate nationally. In the spirit of our proceedings, let me start by agreeing with him on various points. The Liberal Democrats certainly agree that there are problems and that far too many schools are failing or coasting. We wholeheartedly agree that we need to encourage innovation and local leadership, free from central Government diktat, which still casts a shadow over the education system.

We also agree that we have an over-prescriptive centralised national curriculum, with far too much nationally imposed testing. Furthermore, I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that the dogmatic obsession with the question whether public or private is best is damaging, and there is clearly a role for the public, private and voluntary sectors in our public services.

I would probably also agree with the hon. Member for Harwich and the Conservative party that the trust schools proposed in the Education and Inspections Bill will not deliver the vision that he outlined. Indeed, they have become something of a fudge—they are neither one thing nor the other. So, despite the Conservative party’s support for the Bill, I am sure he would acknowledge that it will not implement what he advocates.

That Bill is certainly a long way from the original vision outlined by the Prime Minister, who said that he wanted all schools to become trust schools. I fundamentally disagree with that approach, which is a strange and over-prescriptive way of running our education system. It reminds me of Henry Ford, because it is a bit like saying, “You can choose any school you want as long as it’s a trust school.” That is not parental choice, which is the one thing we all agree that we want, although we have different ways of achieving it.

I shall follow the development of Conservative party education policy with interest, because having supported the Bill, Conservative Members are likely to be quite critical of trust schools when they do little to improve standards over the coming years. However, we shall wait and see.

As regards the Liberal Democrat vision, we agree with more freedom, localism and choice—the buzz words that we all use, although we have different ways of implementing our policies. However, the one freedom that schools need above all is the one that the Bill does not give them—the freedom to teach what they want. We made that clear throughout proceedings on the Bill, although we shall not, of course, go through those debates again.

The one freedom that the Bill gives schools with which we disagree is the freedom to pick pupils. A Headspace survey of head teachers showed that 38 per cent. admitted breaking their own admissions code. I accept that my party has a different vision of education, but our concern is that giving schools more independence will allow them to pick their own pupils.

My party does not agree with that approach, although other hon. Members might, and that is a perfectly reasonable perspective. However, the evidence is that such things are happening, and they will become more likely to happen the more we go down the route of having independent schools. That will be to the detriment of the pupils whom our education system currently fails most.

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My hon. Friends and I are also concerned about accountability, which is another reason why we do not want to go down the route of introducing further independence for schools. The hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned localism, and it is extraordinary that, in trust schools and particularly academies, private companies will now have power over elected parent governors, never mind head teachers and elected local education authorities. That is a strange vision of localism and accountability.

There is a danger in saying that independence is the solution to the problems in our schools, in the same way that we said that comprehensive education was the one-size-fits-all solution. We have had a healthy debate, and it has been interesting and valuable to take part because none of those who have contributed has fallen into the trap of talking about party political positions, but we must be aware of the danger of saying that independence in itself, or a comprehensive education in itself, is the key to unlocking the door and will give us wonderful schools everywhere.

Let me also sound a brief note of caution. I understand the vision outlined by the hon. Member for Harwich, but we must listen to schools. Throughout proceedings on the Education and Inspections Bill, there was lots of talk about how we must empower schools, but are we listening to schools in the first place? In January, a Guardian/ICM poll of 805 head teachers and assistant head teachers showed that only 29 per cent. backed plans to free schools from direct local education authority control, but I suspect that such things are not taken into account in those debates or when we discuss measures such as those in the Bill.

Indeed, in The Independent in April, Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that trust schools are

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