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There we have a Liberal Democrat explanation of why academies have been driving things forward. I would suggest that leadership and innovation are further reasons for that, but in any event there are real reasons why academies in disadvantaged areas are driving up standards, and that is why I support them. The hon. Gentleman should listen to the substance of what is said by the Liberal Democrats and our party, rather than listening to the spin of the Tories.

Mr. Laws: Now we know what all the extra people whom the Labour party has been hiring in recent weeks have been doing: they have been going around collecting copies of Newington Liberal Democrat “Focus” leaflets.

I do not disagree with any of that. I was trying to get the Government’s position on the record, but I was also trying to tease out the view of the Secretary of State and his Department on why academies are a good thing, if that is what they really believe. I should also like to hear later whether the Secretary of State wishes the powers and freedoms of academies to be extended to schools.

The Secretary of State is waving the leaflet. I should be delighted to look at it later, although I see all these things before they are sent out anyway.

The Secretary of State may wish to intervene on another issue, that of reform of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and its independence. I am delighted by this further magpie move by the Government—I may give credit to the Conservative party on this occasion. It is rare for the pinching process to work in this way, but the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, at least, has claimed that he advocated the policy some time ago. I am delighted to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) advocated a similar policy in August, and was condemned by the Schools Minister for trying to undermine confidence in the examination system.

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I think it is a good thing that the Government are to seek to make a portion of the QCA more independent. There has been a breakdown of confidence in the examination system in recent years, and this move may have a real effect. Many educational institutions, particularly private schools and high-performing state schools, are considering opting out of the existing qualifications framework altogether. That is worrying, because we risk a return to the days when the Secretary of State and I were at school, when there were different qualifications for people with different abilities. We do not want to discover that the existing qualifications are regarded as second-grade, and only for some schools.

I do not believe that the Secretary of State has yet published his consultation paper on the independence of part of the QCA. If I have missed it, I apologise. We look forward to playing an active part in the consultation on the independent model that the Secretary of State proposes. I ask him, however, to retain an open mind on whether additional elements of the management of our education system could do with rather less politics, and rather more of the expertise we have seen in some of the other models that the Government cited in the letter that the Secretary of State kindly sent to us on the day of his conference speech, letting us know of the proposed changes to the QCA.

In paragraph 8 of the letter, the Secretary of State said that

That related to other changes, including the change in the position of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, one of the policies in which the Secretary of State was particularly involved in 1997. The Secretary of State proceeded to develop the argument, explaining that he sought to do the same in respect of the QCA changes.

The problem with the changes that the Secretary of State is making is that—as I think he would be the first to admit—they are far more modest than the Monetary Policy Committee changes, which transferred a major area of decision making to a separate body in relation to policy, with overarching strategic control from the Government. As the Secretary of State is honest enough to admit in paragraph 9, the proposal for the QCA, although worthwhile, is indeed far more modest—namely the creation of

Creating a regulator is very different from seeking to establish a greater distance between the decisions of Ministers and decisions about what type of education obtains in every school in the country.

I believe that all sorts of additional elements could be included in the Secretary of State’s independent model which would allow us to engage in more sensible, intelligent, rational debate about the curriculum, and might lead to more independent sampling of pupils over periods of time to judge whether examination standards or pupils are changing. We should also be thinking, at least, about whether not a reformed QCA but the type of education standards authority that we were beginning to discuss when the Secretary of State came along and announced his policy—

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Ed Balls: A different policy.

Mr. Laws: It is slightly different. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for mentioning that.

We should think about whether a body of that type could also commission independently work on education standards and how to improve them in schools, in a way that would not leave it to the passing fads espoused by Ministers to establish that this or that particular way of learning was in vogue.

I do not know whether this applies to the body that the Secretary of State envisages, but I believe that many people in the country may feel that aspects of education policy and the curriculum have been excessively politicised over many years, and that—without losing strategic political control and returning to James Callaghan’s description, pre-1979, of education as a secret garden—we should take some of the politics out of the issues. I am not sure whether the Chairman of the Select Committee is hovering, waiting to intervene.

Mr. Sheerman: No.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should be grateful if you would tell me what protection Back Benchers have in this debate. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) spoke for 21 minutes; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke for 23 minutes. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) has so far spoken for 32 minutes, more than twice the maximum allowed to Back Benchers. Are Back Benchers to be given an opportunity by the Liberal Democrats to speak in the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to catch my eye in due course, but I must say that it is incumbent on Front-Bench spokesmen to keep a strict eye on how much time is available for the debate as a whole.

Mr. Laws: I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the right hon. Gentleman are right—although I have been excessively generous in giving way to the Secretary of State—and I shall raise only one further concern about Government education policy before giving other Members a chance to speak.

Are the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools and Learners still committed to the harsh—almost authoritarian—model that they seem to have been proposing for the upcoming education Bill of later this year, which will have the worthy aspiration of keeping as many youngsters as possible in education until the age of 18? Is the route that the Government envisage going down of criminal sanctions on both children and parents the right one, or could we not usefully adopt a more entitlement-based route with a greater degree of flexibility about when people take free education? Would that route be not only less authoritarian, but more effective for many of the youngsters who drop out of the education system at 16—many of whom are, for a variety of personal reasons, not ready at that stage to engage in the type of
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activities that the Secretary of State thinks he can oblige them to engage in under powers of criminal imposition?

I have mentioned a number of the issues that we will want to raise over the weeks and months ahead. Sadly, since the former Chancellor became Prime Minister the Government have lost direction in their long-term thinking not only on economic strategy, but in many areas of public service delivery. There has been a magpie approach of selecting policies from others for short-term political gain. We hope that if the Secretary of State continues that magpie approach, he will do so in respect of some of the serious issues that have been debated today rather than for short-term political effect.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. That applies from now on.

2.52 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): When I first saw that there was to be an education debate in the first week after the recess I was delighted, but I became rather depressed when I saw its terms. We all know where certain figures come from, and we all know that figures can be bent or skewed—or spun, even. People across the political spectrum whom I respect are angry about the terms of the debate, which feed views that come from the right of the political spectrum, as represented by Politeia, Civitas and the Adam Smith Institute, and which continually denigrate state education in our country.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) would ever have tabled such a motion, and I am disappointed that we have begun after the recess on this note. I hope that in future the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) will reflect on the fact that it is fine for Members who so wish to conduct themselves in this Chamber as though they were taking part in a student debate in the Oxford Union, but that a clever debate can be held without resorting to rudeness and ridicule. That is not how to try to establish a good relationship across party divides with those of us who care very much about the education sector.

A new evaluation of Members of Parliament was published this morning in which 5 per cent. were deemed “outstanding”, 40 per cent. “good”, 40 per cent. “satisfactory”, and 10 per cent. “inadequate”. It appears that 5 per cent. will be put into special measures. There was, of course, no such poll, but if there had been there would be much resentment among Members who were not in the “satisfactory” or “good” category.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman: No, let me develop my point.

I talk to head teachers and school staff around the country, and that is the sort of resentment they feel. Many of them remind me of an interview that I had
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with Ofsted three years ago, in which “satisfactory” was suddenly deemed not to be satisfactory and instead it was necessary to be deemed “good”. There is a changing world for schools, and we must remember that it damages them if we constantly drag out statistics that suggest that a high percentage of children are being failed and are not being well served by the education process.

I know that all sorts of statistics can be produced, but when we carefully examine them some surprising facts can occasionally be discovered, and I want to remind the House of one fact about research conducted in 1994. There was tremendous complacency about how well our primary schools were doing. People were making speeches saying that we had the best primary education in Europe, but the Conservative Government conducted an evaluation and found that achievement of the required standard in English was as low as 44 per cent. and for maths was as low as 42 per cent. We must pay tribute to the Conservative Government who decided to conduct that test—although it did so rather late in the day—because that was the start of the process of trying to find out exactly how our children are doing in school.

Since then, there has, of course, been a tremendous improvement. I was in touch with the university of Buckingham this morning, which was disappointed about the allegation of a 40 per cent. failure rate at 11. The general view is that the underachievement rate is about 20 per cent. There have been tremendous increases in literacy and numeracy—the rates hover at about 78 to 80 per cent. That is a remarkable change, and the fact that we have much higher standards is down to the teachers, the heads and the students in our country.

We should also look at the context in which some schools operate. Serious educational academics give evidence to my Select Committee. Professor Gorard, for example, says that we should look at the schools that do not have the highest achievement rates in context, because the schools that face the most challenging circumstances are likely to be classified as failing. He said:

The 20 per cent. underachievement rate in primary schools is a problem. A substantial proportion of that 20 per cent. are children with special educational needs, children from families who have recently settled in this country and children who have had a really bad start in life, with bad parenting and little home support.

Mr. Chaytor: Does that not reinforce the point that I tried to make earlier: that it does those children or their parents no service when the Opposition continuously to refer to them as failures? Many such children come from extremely difficult backgrounds and have serious learning difficulties, and merely because they fail to reach level 4 at key stage 2 or do not achieve five A* to Cs at the age of 16 does not mean that they are failures.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He and I listen to the evidence presented to the Select Committee, and that is what we find. I repeat that it
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helps no one to exaggerate underperformance in our schools, whether at primary or secondary level, or even at 16 to 18.

I take issue with some correspondence that recently appeared in The Times. It used to be a good newspaper—I think that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath had a hand in its steady decline—but one contributor to the correspondence was Clarissa Farr, the high mistress of St. Paul’s girls’ school in the City of London, who decried the failure of state schools. After I read that, I looked at what the Leader of the Opposition said to his party conference:

In many ways, that was a very good thing to say, but people who decry state education encourage parents around the country to ask whether it is good enough for their children. That encourages the flight from local and community schools that I described earlier.

I wrote to The Times making it clear that I go to more schools than most Members of Parliament, and that in most of them I see high achievement, good leadership, excellent teaching and fantastic learning. I will not undermine that achievement, but I know that schools want a fair chance to achieve. It is all very well for the high mistress of St. Paul’s girls’ school, or people who went to Eton, to decry state education, but their backgrounds do not include poor kids on free school meals, or pupils with special educational needs, or looked-after children. I believe that the teaching staff of the elite schools would deserve to be examined very closely if their charges did not get five straight As at A-level and go on to the top universities.

I want to make the very serious point that schools in our communities depend on a fair distribution of population. Recently, I visited a school in Maidstone in Kent, where there is a cluster of three secondary moderns among many grammar schools. One secondary modern was doing exceptionally well, with two-thirds or three-quarters of its pupils going on to higher education. What Labour Members know, and Opposition Members deny, is that the overall performance of all children in Kent, despite that county’s selective education and grammar schools, is very poor and is below the national average. The children there who do not get into the selective schools do not get the same chances as children elsewhere in the country.

When 65 per cent. of a school’s pupils have special educational needs, and when 100 per cent. of its pupils are on free school meals, the task facing any headmaster is very challenging, however inspired the leadership and teaching. Those problems must be borne in mind when we discuss our country’s education sector. The Select Committee has looked at school admissions and performance, and head teachers have told us time and again that what they need is the opportunity to have their school populations made up of children with a fair range of abilities, because only then will they be able to show what they can do.

In contrast, the flight from schools in town centres that I have described occurs when parents believe that such schools cannot be as good as schools three miles
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away. It is assumed that the latter must have nicer children, but the result is that schools in town centres are of a lower standard because they are not able to teach all the children from their local communities. That is the lesson that people who went to Eton, or who teach at St. Paul’s girls’ school, need to learn; otherwise they may not understand the problem as well as they should.

I have been accused of being the ghost of policies past, but I want to discuss one aspect of being an elected representative in this House. I believe passionately that people who want to give their children an independent education should be able to do so. We live in a free society, and Andrew Adonis was right to tell the independent head teachers last week that the Government have no plans to stop people sending their children to independent schools.

Moreover, I do not hold any hon. Members responsible for where their parents sent them to be educated. That was a choice for our parents, not for any of us, but we in this House are public representatives and it matters where we send our children. Regardless of which party is in government, we will never get decent schools unless we understand that people in the electorate will not elect someone who does not have confidence in state education and who does not send his or her children to the schools attended by the children of ordinary voters. I hope that, when the next election comes, a website will be available that shows voters precisely where prospective Members of Parliament choose to send their children.

Mr. Laws: Not all Labour Members would be happy about that.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman points his finger across the Floor, but I know of only one or two Labour Members who would not want to make that information available. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I would say the same to them as I would to hon. Members in other parties.

I shall conclude my remarks in a moment, as I am aware that there is a shortage of time in this debate. The hon. Member for Yeovil spoke for a long time, which reminded me of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), a former Liberal Democrat spokesman on education. However, I think that today’s presentation surpassed even the previous record.

My final point is to say that I disagree strongly with my party’s Front Benchers. For six years, I have taken evidence as Chairman of the Education Committee, and I am very interested in where our education policies come from. This is a famous year, as it marks 20 years since the introduction of the national curriculum, and 10 years since the publication of the Dearing report. Sometimes, our political parties can act consensually—as they did, for example, and for a time, with higher education, the national curriculum, testing and assessment, and Ofsted.

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