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Business without Debate

Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question put forthwith , That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Delegated Legislation

Mr. Speaker: With the leave of the House, I shall put motions 3 and 4 together.

Hon. Members: Object.

Mr. Speaker: Objection taken. The motions will therefore be put separately.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

International Monetary Fund

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)) ,

Justice and Security

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The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the D ivision was deferred until Wednesday 8 July (Standing Order No. 41A).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6) ) ,

Identity Cards

The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the D ivision was deferred until Wednesday 8 July (Standing Order No. 41A).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6) ) ,

Identity Cards

The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the D ivision was deferred until Wednesday 8 July (Standing Order No. 41A).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6) ) ,

Identity Cards

The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the D ivision was deferred until Wednesday 8 July (Standing Order No. 41A).

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will know, it is very difficult to be successful in the ballot for questions. I was delighted that I came up in the ballot for questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government but, to my horror, I received notification this morning that my question had been bumped from tomorrow’s Order Paper and made into a written question to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Exactly the same thing happened to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride). I know, Sir, that the Ashes are coming up and cricket is on everyone’s mind, so is it not fair to suggest that, similar to what happens under the LBW rule, the benefit of the doubt should be given to a Back-Bench Member who is asking a question, rather than to the Executive who are trying to bump a question? I would be very grateful for any ruling that you could make on this matter.

Mr. Speaker: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and, more particularly, for giving me advance notice of it. What I say to him is that I, in common with my predecessors, strongly deprecate the notion of late unstarring of oral questions. I hope that that point is heard very clearly by those on the Government Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman will understand that, despite his brief description of the position, I am not closely familiar with the details of his particular case, or that of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), but what I can and should fairly say to him and to the House is that I will indeed look into the matter.

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Three-tier Education (Bedfordshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mark Tami.)

10.32 pm

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): The subject for this debate is two-tier and three-tier education. When I became the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, a system of three-tier education was in operation, as is the case now—that is different from what happens in most of the rest of the country. Shortly after I became an MP, three-tier education and whether or not our area should transfer to offering two-tier education became the subject of much debate among parents, schools and councillors. At that time, the remit for education was under the authority of the county council. A vote was taken and the decision was to retain the three-tier system. That vote took place nearly three years ago, since when a cultural change in attitude towards three-tier education has taken place in Bedfordshire, because we have seen year-on-year improvement in children’s outcomes. That happened because the attitude previously had been that at some stage the area would change to having a two-tier system, so the three-tier approach had been slightly neglected, but, following the vote, outcomes have improved.

One of the reasons why the vote to retain a three-tier system was carried was that it was felt that sacrificing a generation of children in the transformation from one system to the other was too high a price to pay; many children would probably have been spending much of their education in portakabins while schools were being sold off to raise finance for new schools to be built or while mergers of schools were taking place, and it was felt that the transitional impact on those children would be too great. That was one of the issues. Another was, of course, the cost. It was felt that no evidence existed to demonstrate that huge improvements could be achieved through the change or that this would be a life-changing event, in terms of academic or other outcomes, for children. On the contrary, the evidence demonstrates that the pastoral care given in middle schools—in the smaller school environment—can hugely enhance a child’s education. All that was lacking was the commitment to get behind three-tier education, invest in it and make it work well.

We have had a change recently in Bedfordshire and we now have the unitary authority system. The Central Bedfordshire authority is taking a sensible and measured approach to the issue and is consulting the various portfolio holders and members of the executive. It is taking a steady and reasoned approach and will go to full consultation. It has also brought head teachers from all three tiers into the consultation. Nobody in the Central Bedfordshire authority has taken the decision to change to two-tier, so it is going through a genuine process and evaluation.

However, the same cannot be said in Bedford, where the mayor—I believe that his party is Better Bedford—has decided that the change will be made. The decision was made a while ago—perhaps the mayor wants it to be his legacy. That change appears to be very much against the wishes of parents, if the e-mails that I have received are anything to go by—or the 20,000 hits in the last 60 days on the save our schools website for Bedford, or the presentations made by parents at the 20 or so consultations
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that have taken place over the last few months. The strong feeling is that parents in Bedford like the smaller school system, especially as many of the schools are in rural areas—not all, but some. Parents like the smaller schools and the pastoral care, which works well especially for children with learning difficulties or special needs. It is much easier, in the small school environment, to focus on those children and identify problems earlier.

The original proposal was that the decision to change from three-tier to two-tier would be taken using mayoral powers. The mayor is now rowing back from that and the decision may be taken by the full council. However, some of the information that has been given out to parents and schools is not entirely accurate. One of the areas of propaganda is the claim that the Building Schools for the Future funding will not be available to schools in Bedfordshire should they retain the three-tier system. I do not know whether that is true, and I hope that the Minister will clarify the point. I would argue that middle schools are upper schools. They are still educating children of that age—it is not as though a whole age group are not being educated. Therefore I fail to see why that should be the case.

It is also claimed that in order to obtain Building Schools for the Future funding, a school has to demonstrate that the funding would have a transformational effect. I would argue that over the last three years we have seen transformations taking place in education in Bedfordshire. For example, in Mid-Bedfordshire there are no schools in special measures.

Some of the other information that has been given out is slightly duplicitous and a bit naughty. For example, the consultation document that has been given out includes eight pages of information about the two-tier system, which the mayor wants to change to, and 18 words about the three-tier system.

I have received about 600 e-mails and letters, and there are lots of stories about pressure being put on people; I have no personal evidence of that—it is only what I have been told by parents and teachers.

Another matter of which I have proof is that in the consultation document, GCSE results in the borough are limited to the state schools, compared with the figures that are collected on the national basis, which include the results of independent schools. Bedford has an independent school system known as the Harpur Trust, made up of a fee-paying group of schools. They are quite low-cost and very good. They were set up as a trust and have been established for a long time. Their examination figures have been taken out of the consultation document, so just the very select figures from the state schools are being used as a comparator with the national figures. There are issues concerning the use of those figures.

The “Save Middle Schools” campaign, which is running in the area, has not been allowed to give out its literature in the upper and lower schools because of pressure from elsewhere to prevent it from doing so. That too has been an issue of concern.

Let me turn to my main concern. I like three-tier education—I will put my hand up to that. If I was pressed against a wall by parents about this issue—and I am, frequently—I would say that I like three-tier education, because I am particularly interested in special needs and because I like the small teaching environments
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and the pastoral care and teaching that can be given in such environments. I like the fact that our outcomes have been good over the past three years. However, it is not my decision, and it is not the decision of councillors.

When the mayor of Bedford was elected, the decisions about education in Bedford were made by the county council. It was not within his remit. He did not stand on any manifesto or any platform to do with changing to two-tier education. The same can be said of Central Bedfordshire council, because all the councillors recently stood for election, and not one of them included three-tier and two-tier education in their manifestos. Nobody in an elected position in Bedfordshire has been elected as a result of any recent statement on education, because it was not within their remit at the time at which they were elected.

If we are going to subject a generation of children to a change from three-tier to two-tier education and if that means that children will have to study in portakabins and will receive an education that involves a lot of change, that must involve parents, governors and, most importantly, the children. Anything we do in education in this country should be focused on achieving an educational outcome for the particular children involved. I believe that it should therefore be the responsibility of the parents, teachers and governors to decide whether that change should take place. I hope that the Minister supports that view. As no elected person in Bedfordshire—including the mayor of Bedford—has the mandate to decide whether we should change to two-tier education then, if the decision is to be taken, it should be taken by the parents via a referendum.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) wants to speak about the financial points, so I shall finish my speech. May I ask the Minister whether it is the case that, if we retain three-tier education, we will be prejudiced against or damaged in any way as regards receiving Building Schools for the Future funding? Culturally, are the Government putting any pressure on the mayor, on Better Bedford, on the council in Bedford or on whoever else is involved to change to two-tier education? Will we be financially disadvantaged? Does the Minister agree that if such a huge change is to take place within education, parents and teachers should have some kind of referendum as no one has the mandate to introduce such a change?

Rather than taking an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, if it is acceptable, Mr. Speaker, I shall hand over to him to allow him to make a speech.

10.44 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): With the kind permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) and the Minister, may I offer a couple of comments on the debate? First, I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend on succeeding in applying for and winning this Adjournment debate on what is, as the Minister will understand perfectly well, a contentious issue.

My understanding is that there is no guidance from the Department for Communities and Local Government or from anywhere else that either a three-tier or two-tier
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system is innately preferable. I am sure that all our evidence would show that the quality of the school and the education system is determined by the quality of the head teacher, the ethos of the school, the quality of the staff and the work that goes on there. The Government express no preference for one structure or the other. However, for parents in an area where the matter is up for consideration it is one of the utmost importance, because it concerns their children—either those who are in the school system now, or those who will come into it in the future. So the debate in Bedfordshire is keenly contested.

Two debates are going on. As my hon. Friend said, our constituencies share local authorities. Most of her constituency covers Central Bedfordshire; my constituency is split quite evenly between Bedford unitary council and Central Bedfordshire. Bedford unitary council is going through the process of deciding whether to retain the three-tier system. Central Bedfordshire is not yet able to make that determination, but has indicated that it is considering the future of its education system.

We seek the Minister’s clarification of three areas, if he would be so good. First, on the funding elements, as my hon. Friend said, there is a relationship between the decision to be made about the future of our schools and a possible bid for the Building Schools for the Future programme, linked to the desire to improve the quality of our schools. As she also said, there has been issue about whether any bid under that initiative would be related to the structure of the schools. Having held a meeting with the Minister’s predecessor, I am convinced that the Government do not have any preference one way or another, and that it will be possible for Building Schools for the Future money to be available for authorities that maintain three-tier education. I would be grateful if the Minister would say whether any applications from authorities with three-tier education have been successful. Has any area with a middle school structure been successful in obtaining funds under the Building Schools for the Future programme?

Secondly, we seek the Minister’s guidance on the decision-making structure. He may not be able to answer us this evening, but he might be able to do so by letter. In Bedford council, there is an elected mayor, with a cabinet and council. There is a debate about whether the decision on the structure of schools should be made by the mayor alone, by the mayor and his cabinet, by the mayor and his cabinet and a third of councillors, or by the whole council. My view—and, I think, that of my hon. Friend—is strongly that a decision of such importance should be made by the full council. I wonder whether the Minister can give any indication of whether, under the system of elected mayors, it is possible for the decision to be made by the mayor on his own or by the mayor with the approval of the cabinet and a third of the members, or whether it must be made by the full council. If he cannot answer that tonight, I would be grateful for confirmation by letter.

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