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10 Oct 2007 : Column 318

When the Secretary of State first appeared at the Dispatch Box a few months ago, we offered to work with him and with the Liberal Democrats to advance reform. Since then, I have been encouraged and heartened by the Liberal Democrat leadership’s bravery in embracing greater choice and control for parents and moving away from a defence of producer interests. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) deserves credit. I am sure that he will give me none in his speech, but I quite understand. Given his party’s poll ratings and his position as leader of his party’s sensible tendency, he has to put up a pretence of anti-Tory feeling. We shall not hold it against him.

However, while there has been a movement towards consensus around genuine reform from the Liberal Democrats, there has been the opposite from the Secretary of State. Far from moving forward, he has gone back; far from modernising, he is retreating. Way back in 2005, when the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) was Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the then Prime Minister wrote a preface to the Government’s education White Paper. For those on the Labour Benches who cannot remember him, he was a chap by the name of Blair. Sadly for them, he is no longer in the House and is therefore incapable of filling the great clunking vacuum at the top.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to reform. Does he favour the support from part of the Conservative party for the reintroduction of grammar schools?

Michael Gove: I have no idea from where on earth the hon. Lady gets that idea. We support good schools, wherever they exist in the state system, and oppose the Secretary of State’s attempt to undermine them. Wherever there are good schools, we will back them rather than undermine them for party political reasons. We are not selective about championing excellence.

In his preface to the education White Paper, the former right hon. Member for Sedgefield argued that,

He wanted

I could not put it better myself. The case for reform is clear, urgent, modern and rejected by the Secretary of State.

In his first statement to the House, the Secretary of State slammed the brakes on reform. Academies were told that they could not open if Labour local councillors wanted to deny parents that choice. Far from being built on, freedoms were further restricted. New academies were told that innovation would be stifled and that they would have to follow a much more restricted curriculum. Since then, he has moved backwards further and faster. In his speech to the Labour party conference, he played to the left-wing gallery, making it clear that the educational establishment would stifle innovation, encouraging Labour LEAs to take an even bigger role in interfering
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in schools and slamming the door on genuine independence for new state schools and genuine choice and control for parents.

The Secretary of State cannot provide the change that the country needs because he has made himself a prisoner of the forces of educational conservatism. He has even fallen back on the lamest mantra of them all—a line so hackneyed that even the Prime Minister felt he had to abandon it as too threadbare a cliché. The Secretary of State said that he believes in “standards not structures”, but, as Tony Blair was forced to concede,

That is the truth that the Secretary of State denies, and why he is doomed to fail.

What makes the failure worse is that, at the same time as the Secretary of State thwarts any chance of structural reform, he fails to drive though a genuine improvement in standards. Indeed, he does the opposite. Far from using every lever at his disposal to insist on rigour and excellence, he has been afraid to take on the establishment that presides over mush and muddle in our curriculum.

On the Secretary of State’s watch, we have been told that children should have five-minute lessons because they cannot pay attention for longer. His bureaucrats said that children should mark each other’s work because that is more liberating and his people took Churchill out of the curriculum because he was no longer considered relevant to today’s children. Our most courageous Prime Minister no longer relevant? I suppose I can understand why this Government would want him written out of history. What happened only when we objected to the change—not before? The Secretary of State rang round the newspapers, shifted the blame on to his officials, said that he was not consulted and promised to change course not, I think, your finest hour, Secretary of State.

A Secretary of State who was determined to drive up standards would put rigour back in the curriculum and give children the chance to take pride in our national story. However, under this Secretary of State, there has been a refusal to show any courage in taking on the entrenched interests who stand in the way of excellence. I fear that he has been interested in only low partisan politics and shallow tactical positioning.

We have had no leadership on reform or standards and no honesty about funding. Only yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer failed to level with us in his pre-Budget report—a document that would earn a fail in any examination for being copied from someone else’s work. We were promised an extra £250,000 on personalised learning for every pupil, but that amounts to only £34 for every school student—just enough to buy a copy of “Courage” by Gordon Brown and pay for 20 minutes of teaching time. With that book and only 20 minutes, one could probably help any class learn the meaning of “hubris”.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab) rose—

Michael Gove: Speaking of hubris—

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Tom Levitt: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the pre-Budget report and the comprehensive spending review. Is he defending Tory party policy of putting £2 billion into the hands of 9,000 of the country’s richest families rather than investing it in health and education, as the Government will?

Michael Gove: Is the hon. Gentleman in the right debate? We are discussing education, not reading out tired, photocopied lines from the Labour Whips Office, which will not save him in High Peak. He should start campaigning for better education instead of trying to curry favour with the leadership—it will not help him. We have already been promised capital funding for schools, in the Building Schools for the Future programme, but so far only 14 of the promised 100 new buildings have materialised. The rest are just not there. They exist only in Ministers’ imaginations and in Labour party press releases—a bit like photographs of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Michael Gove: And talking of ghostly images.

Mr. Sheerman: The Select Committee on Education and Skills recently issued a report on the sustainable school, which deals with Building Schools for the Future. We applauded the Government’s slowing down of Building Schools for the Future, because the process needs full consultation with the school if we are going to get the schools right. We said clearly that we much preferred the delay, so that local communities, the students and teachers could participate in the process of designing their own schools. We get good schools that way. The hon. Gentleman should please not make any easy assumptions without reading the report.

Michael Gove: I am glad to see that the ghost of education policy past has now become the spirit of fearless truth, in pointing out that the Government have failed to deliver on time and that it is time they thought again. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s candour in at last finding the courage, valuable virtue as it is, to criticise the Government.

To add insult to injury on funding, the Government are now clawing back money with a retrospective levy that plunders the balances of good schools to fund their own agenda. Sharp practice and hypocrisy, excellence penalised and central control stifling good practice—a perfect snapshot of Labour’s attitude to education. So no progress on structural reform, no bravery on standards, no honesty on funding—what does that leave as the Balls agenda? Naked, narrow partisanship.

In an interview that the Secretary of State gave to the New Statesman in 2006, when he was still just a humble Back Bencher—well, a Back Bencher anyway—he explained why he disliked more independence for schools, distrusted the reform agenda and disagreed with the stewardship of the Department for Education and Skills under the right hon. Member for Bolton, West. What was needed, he said, was to

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not constructive reform, not a consensus for change, not children first, but division as our future.

Since that time, the Secretary of State has been as good as his word. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now agree on the need for greater parental choice and control. Even the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), the man who was campaign co-ordinator the last time Labour actually won an election, now agrees with us. Modernisers in every party now champion the case for greater parental control. There is a growing consensus for change, but the Secretary of State wants to divide and just says no.

There is another consensus as well. All three parties were agreed that a pointless assault on existing good schools was a distraction from the key issue of our time, improving education for the most disadvantaged and for those in failing schools. But what has happened under this Secretary of State? On Saturday—I wonder why it was then—the press were briefed by his Department:

How cynical can one get? When their judgement was found wanting, their egotism backfiring and their hubristic plans imploding, what do these Ministers do? They try to reignite a political row, try to sow division and try to shut down good schools. Instead of learning from what makes schools successful and arguing for the adoption of appropriate policies across the state sector, as we have, with our comprehensively excellent campaign, they prefer to play silly political games and abdicate their responsibility to govern in the whole national interest. They prefer the easy course of pursuing class war to the hard work of securing improvements in every classroom.

But then, that is all of a piece with the cynicism that the Secretary of State has brought to his office. Invited on the radio to discuss our children’s future, all he was really interested in was his clique’s future. He talked of election timing and mused on where the “gamble” would be, treating the serious business of government as though it were a casino game in which they could treat people as mere counters to be shoved around at their convenience. But when the chips were down, the Government folded. They were tried and found wanting, tested and found hollow, totally incapable of being trusted any more. It is time for real change that puts pupils and parents first. It is time for the Conservative agenda.

1.54 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

May I say that it is a great pleasure to debate the track record of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, just three months after it was established in July? Notwithstanding today’s Opposition motion, which I shall come to later, or the rather Punch and Judy, pugnacious speech that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) gave, I welcome the courteous and serious way in which he and the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) have taken up their new shadow responsibilities since July and the support that they have given the new Department. I am grateful to them for the proper and helpful discussions that we have had over the complex issues around safeguarding and the work of Sir Roger Singleton in recent months. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for the honest and mature way in which he praised the achievements of our A-level students this summer, in marked contrast with previous shadow Ministers.

I also welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for our new independent standards regulator, which I announced two weeks ago. I also welcome his blessing for the review of speech and language therapy being led, with his full support, by our mutual friend, the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). So despite today’s motion, I am pleased to stand across the Dispatch Box from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. In spite of our differences, it is my hope that we can make more progress in the coming months to forge a deeper and wider consensus on what needs to be done to give every child the best start in life and to give every young person the chance to fulfil their potential.

Just three months after the Department was first established, I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and hon. Members on all sides of the House can agree that we have made some real progress. Since July we have welcomed the best key stage 2, GCSE and A-level results ever; we have expanded personalised learning and launched Every Child a Writer to help children in primary schools who are falling behind; we have reformed the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to establish a new independent standards regulator; we have raised the bar on standards for discipline and introduced new powers for head teachers to tackle truancy and bullying; we have signed up 12 additional universities to get involved in sponsoring academies; we have opened our first 30 trust schools; we have launched our first five new diplomas; we have set out a 10-year plan to transform youth services; we have introduced new standards for school meals and more hours of school sports; and we have started a national children’s plan consultation. The Department
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is showing that it is a strong and effective voice not just for better education, but for every child and parent in this country.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): The Secretary of State has not yet mentioned the families side of his Department. I appreciate that the Department is new and that he is probably going to come on to this, but will he say whether part of his brief will be to support and strengthen family relationships, and in particular to consider the needs of separated families, on which the Department for Work and Pensions is looking to his Department to help with the new information and advice service?

Ed Balls: That was the first serious contribution to this debate from Opposition Members. I am happy to say that we will support all families in this country, whether they are married, single-parent, separated or divorced families. We will never tolerate an approach to supporting family policy that stigmatises or counts as second best those families that are separated, widowed or divorced. That is why we reject the approach to family policy that was set out by Opposition Members earlier this summer.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): When the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was speaking very prettily, taking time off from moonlighting as a journalist, did my right hon. Friend notice that, unlike the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), with whom I had the pleasure of serving on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which dealt with such issues, he never mentioned families at all in either his motion or his speech?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is quite right.

As I have just said, this new Department is a strong and effective voice for education for every child and every parent in this country. And, as the Chancellor confirmed yesterday, the new Department has also secured a further £450 million for the spending review period on top of our budget settlement, which will mean that education spending will rise to record levels and that we will have £21.9 billion of schools investment over the next three years, which will deliver 400 more secondary schools and 675 new primary schools. It will also mean that every school will become an extended school, full details of which are being published this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners. It will mean more schools capital investment in the next three years than in the entire 18 years of Conservative Government between 1979 and 1997.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am listening carefully to the Secretary of State, as I did when he had his former job in the Treasury. He has given us a catalogue of what he considers to be the great successes. If there has been so much success, why are so many of our children failing to read and write and failing in maths at the age of 11? If everything is so wonderful, what has gone wrong to allow this to happen?

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