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When we are able to reach such a consensus, education takes a leap forward. At the moment, however, it is clear that the Conservative party rejects that consensual approach, as evidenced by the appointment of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath as its spokesman. That is disappointing, but I hope that
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the Conservative party will return to the centre ground and make common cause with the rest of us. If we work together and communicate with each other, we can ensure that our children’s education—and the education sector as a totality—will prosper.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that, although there is a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, the entire allocation need not be taken up.

3.8 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I should like to be able to say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), but I had trouble understanding some of the rules and regulations that he seemed to lay down about where people should send their children to be educated. However, I agreed with the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) when he said that there has been far too much politics in education and teaching over the years—a fact that I can endorse fully.

When I was a teacher in an inner-London secondary school, all classes had to be mixed ability, even though some children could barely read and write. Teaching such children was not an edifying task, and I still admire the way in which teachers struggle with pupils who are similarly ill equipped for secondary school. Mixed ability classes remain, and because of the absence of a system based on sets or streams that suit individual children teachers cannot teach to a child’s ability.

Teaching is a hard job. I attended my local state school, and I am grateful to have been lucky enough to be taught well there. I get heartily sick, as do many of my colleagues, of the issue of where we go to school being used as a political football. Having taught in an inner-London comprehensive school, I suggest that it would be more edifying if more people focused not on where we went to school but on what our schools are like and talked to teachers doing the job.

Teaching is a hard job and we cannot thank teachers enough. They have put up with so much rubbish being thrown their way over the years. They have had experimental schemes, such as the initial teaching alphabet in reading. They have had to teach mixed-ability groups, even though no one knew whether the system would work or how to help them to make it work. Now we have massive school discipline problems.

Like many mums and dads, I have been a parent governor and a parent helper, helping pupils to read and so on. Teaching is hard work and there is always challenging behaviour, but teachers are not helped by some of the regulations that stop them removing challenging pupils. The Conservatives propose that schools should be able to exclude pupils who repeatedly flout school rules.

Many parents have to draw up home-school agreements, but realise that they are not worth the paper they are written on, not because of a lack of good intentions on all sides—from the pupil, the parent and the school—but because the school has absolutely no sanction to ensure that agreements are implemented. Pupils who do not want to engage
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productively in education, whose life mission is to disrupt the education of others—I have taught some of them—quickly wise up to the fact that there is little that the school can do. Their attitude is, “You can’t get rid of me, guv”. Schools can do little to ensure that such pupils stop making the lives of teachers and other pupils a misery.

I wish there was a formula for totting up the number of wasted classroom hours and opportunities, the missed trips and the lack of creative work because of the disruptive pupil at the back who will not allow the class to study. Such a system would show why some teachers have been tearing their hair out over the years. Many teachers would welcome being given back the authority that they used to have but which has been undermined by slack uniform policy, and by policies that schools cannot enforce or that are flouted by parents or pupils.

We need firm and reasonable home-school agreements, but if, once all opportunities have been exhausted, the school wants to exclude a pupil, it should be able to do so. The exclusion should not be overturned by some other body, to the annoyance of the school, which then has to take back a pupil who is waving a metaphorical two fingers in the air and continues to behave disruptively. I urge that aspect of our policy on the Secretary of State and hope that he will focus his energies on school discipline, not through sanctions but by giving power back to schools to run things as they see fit.

I struggled with the hon. Member for Huddersfield’s assertion that people do not want to send their children to inner-city schools. Some of the best schools in my area are in the inner city. I am not a geographical person. I believe that what makes good schools and good learning practice are teachers, pupils and parental support, not necessarily the location of the school and whether it has state of the art equipment.

We should not deprive our schools of what they need to do their task, but I am sometimes amazed that people who pontificate about what our schools most need often look only at statistics and not at the value added in schools by hard-working teachers. I recognise the irritation expressed in the sedentary comments of some of my hon. Friends when they hear claims that we have been referring to “failing” schools. It is the pupils who are failed, not the school or teachers who are failing. Pupils are failed by our inability to ensure that they have the right learning atmosphere in school. That is what we have to tackle.

I am an old-fashioned girl. I went to a Church primary school; it was tiny, and older and younger pupils were taught in the same space—we did not have separate classrooms—but the teaching was excellent. Why? It was because the school had an ethos of excellence supported by parents and pupils. If we did not behave at school we were quickly sent home, and if my parents thought I had been in trouble at school—God forbid—I soon knew about it.

The atmosphere at my school was completely supportive. Parents left out of the equation, or who feel helpless, often tell me that they cannot make their child do things because the child knows he can get away with it. We need to ensure that schools are given back the power to re-establish relationships.

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Funding is especially difficult for schools. Serious consideration has been given to special educational needs funding in Hertfordshire—a subject about which I am passionate and which the Conservatives have explored. Special educational needs cover a wide spectrum. It is hugely positive, encouraging and inclusive for some pupils to be educated in the mainstream state system, but other pupils do not have that experience. I have met families whose severely autistic children have been statemented. The parents wanted to take their SEN funding to a special school that met their child’s needs. Like me, they believe firmly that each child should be taught according to their ability in the school that the parent feels is right, which includes an education that is tailored to the child’s needs. We should not try to insist that every child is shoe-horned into mainstream education under an inclusiveness policy that actually excludes the child, who may simply sit at the back of the class unable to participate fully.

I am sure that we have all heard of hard cases—of parents asking whether they can take their SEN funding to a special needs school. Unfortunately, the pendulum seems to have swung in quite the other direction and parents can no longer take the funding to the school of their choice. I feel passionately that there should be more special needs schools.

We should have excellence in schools, but we cannot produce it simply by measuring the number of targets that have been met. Our teachers have been bogged down by targets. The only target should be whether a pupil leaves their education happy, having developed and achieved their potential and can engage in a productive working life with employers who recognise their qualifications.

I am extremely concerned about the idea that we should force young people to remain at school until 18. Having taught truculent 15-year-olds, who have no interest whatever in gaining formal qualifications, I imagine that teaching truculent 18-year-olds would be far worse. The first school at which I taught was in Feltham. Its pupils were not high achievers academically, but many of them were hugely engaged by the car maintenance classes. They learned craft or job-based skills, which they might not necessarily use when they left school, and it was recognised that such courses were better for them than subjects to which they were not suited.

If we insist that pupils remain at school until they are 18, the Secretary of State will need a radical rethink of the curriculum; otherwise, there will be a raft of pupils and parents at loggerheads with the local authority, because young adults will be forced to attend school rather than to choose what they want to do with their lives. Compulsion at that age is not the right way forward and I am extremely concerned about the proposal. I shall watch its progress with interest.

I am fully aware that other Members want to speak, so I shall conclude my remarks.

3.19 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is a trenchant, amusing speaker, and he has shown this afternoon that he can make his case in a concise
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manner. On the other hand, I do not know how he had the cheek to table the motion before us about the standard of education for the children whom we represent. During his party’s period in government, right up to when we came into office in 1997, there were local schools in which teachers taught pupils while rain came in through the roof. At Stanley Grove community primary school, they taught music on the stairs. The primary school classes were overcrowded. State schools with 14,000 pupils were starved of money, while £2.25 million a year went to fund assisted places in the three independent schools in my constituency—90 of my constituents had assisted places.

Now, class sizes have been reduced, which has led to new classrooms being opened in schools all over my constituency. That is partly funded through the new deal for education. Let us remember that both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives tried to prevent that new deal by voting against the windfall tax funding for it. Primary school children in my constituency get free fruit and vegetables every day. There is far wider computer availability and, again, that is because of the Government’s funding.

Major projects are going on in my constituency as a result of the Government’s policies. St. Kentigern’s Roman Catholic primary school, which I visited only last week, would not have been able to operate—it would have been destroyed—if the quotas amendment in the House of Lords, backed by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, had been made in the last Session. St. Kentigern’s has banners outside the school, in the middle of a council estate, proclaiming with pride the fact that Ofsted gave it a report that makes it one of the country’s outstanding schools. The school recently opened a novel and marvellous brain zone, which gives the children new opportunities. That is partly thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who was formerly Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

I shall be at All Saints primary school in Gorton in my constituency a week on Friday to open its new foundation stage unit. That unit will support the new early years framework, in which children aged between three and five learn through play in a stimulating environment. While I am at All Saints, I will present the basic skills quality mark award, which the school has won for the second time. Last month, William Hulme’s grammar school in my constituency—one of the three independent schools that took up £2.25 million of my constituents’ taxes—became a city academy within the state system. Now, instead of parents paying £8,000 a year in fees to send their boys and girls to that school, no one will pay anything in parental fees, and academic selection has been abolished. It was an all-boys school, but now it is a co-educational school for pupils aged between 3 and 18. As a result, parents’ applications to send children to that school have doubled. The school is working towards a pupil roll of 1,000. There is £10 million in Government-funded capital for building to improve the school and increase its capacity.

Off Mount road in Gorton, there is Cedar Mount high school, which exists only because, at my request, a Labour Secretary of State rejected proposals to close down its predecessor on that site. Cedar Mount high school is to be part of an educational village, which is
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being built now, and which will be completed for pupils next year. There will be two schools on that site: Cedar Mount high school and Melland special needs high school. It is a wonderful sight to see. There will be a two-storey 100m internal street, a sports hall, a community wing, a learning resource centre containing a library and information and communication technology facilities, special subject zones for science, humanities and English, an on-site medical suite offering physiotherapy, and a hydrotherapy pool. That is what Labour Governments finance, and that is what the Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme has made possible.

Further up in Gorton, there is the Wright Robinson specialist college. It is a sport and art college, but only because a Labour Secretary of State designated it as such. Before that, it was simply a high school in decrepit buildings that were falling to pieces. The staff were doing a very good job in difficult circumstances. The Building Schools for the Future initiative has launched a project that is on its way to completion, and which cost £33 million in private finance initiative money. That state-of-the-art school will have 1,750 students. The facilities will include a 25m swimming pool, eight courts, a four-court sports hall, two dance studios, a fitness unit, and a free weights room. All of those will be available to not only the 1,750 students at the school, but the local community in Abbey Hey and Gorton. All that is being achieved by a project that this Labour Government launched. Every classroom will have ICT links. There will be seven designated ICT classrooms.

Those are achievements in my constituency in Gorton. If I were not conscious of the time limitations, I could move on to other areas across my constituency and describe how achievement after achievement is being made possible. Of course, that is done through the dedication of the teachers, who are wonderful, the governors and the pupils themselves, but it is made possible by this Labour Government, working with the Labour-controlled Manchester city council.

We have been reminded that the new name for the Department is the Department for Children, Schools and Families, so I should point out that all over the Gorton constituency Sure Start projects are making life much easier for parents. In Longsight, the brand-new Sure Start building, which cost £3 million, is being used for a Muslim women’s learning project. We have just gained further finance for that, again as a result of the activities of the Labour Government. There are Sure Start projects all over my constituency.

I agreed with almost all of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). I disagreed with him on one point that he made when talking about people being allowed to go to independent schools. Of course, I concur with him on that, but he said that parents wanted to choose that option. In my case, had my parents’ choice and ability to pay been the governing factor, I would have gone to the nearest secondary modern school, because that was the choice at the time for working-class children whose parents were factory workers.

What I want now in this state system is for parents to be able to choose the school that they want their
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children to go, and that includes faith schools. That is why I am pleased that the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which was welcomed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Church, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews, championed the right to have faith schools. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives would have destroyed faith schools by imposing 25 per cent. quotas on them and wrecking the ethos of faith schools. Last week, I visited the KD Muslim grammar school in my constituency—I present prizes to its pupils. That school would not have been made possible had the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives had their way, but the Labour party rejected that approach and as a result we have these schools.

Mr. Sheerman: If I said what my right hon. Friend believes I said, I shall immediately correct the record. I meant to say that I do not blame anyone for their choice of school for their son or daughter. I did say that we in this House are responsible for where we send our sons and daughters.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: My hon. Friend and I have not differed in all the time that we have sat on these Benches, and we shall certainly not do so now.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath is not only a trenchant speaker, but a literary chap, so I shall conclude by quoting from “The Return of Sherlock Holmes”:

The curious incident of the dog in the afternoon today was the hon. Gentleman’s deliberate failure to refer to grammar schools. The Conservatives have got themselves into a huge tangle and when he was challenged, he was not able to get himself out of it. He made a nice quip to try to do so, but the fact is that the Tories have got themselves into a mess over grammar schools from which they will not extricate themselves. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that although the Government have achieved nowhere near everything that Labour Members want to achieve, they have nevertheless done wonders in my constituency. My constituents want the Government to go on doing so and that is why they want a Labour Government to continue.

3.33 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a pleasure to be back in the House and to find that we are discussing education so early in this parliamentary Session. I am glad to see that the Secretary of State has come down from his excitement about general elections and stopped running around the studios telling everyone that there should be one. He indulged in partisan banter in his conference speech and gave the most humiliating and poor performance in a television studio. Anyone who has not seen it should go to YouTube and search for “IDS versus a load of Balls”. They should be able to find the interview and see that the Secretary of State was not fulfilling the requirements of his position.

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