Environment, Local Government and Education
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn)
The hon. Lady is right to say that three or four schools out of hundreds that have opted out in Lancashire were starved of cash for their capital building needs. Where she is wrong—she knows this—is in suggesting that Lancashire county council is responsible. She came with me on deputation after deputation to Ministers, and she knows that it was the Conservative Government who starved the schools of funds, not the failure of Lancashire county council.
The question raised by the Catholic bishops and the question now being raised by governors, parents and local authorities throughout the land is whether the bribes can continue. I put the question to the Secretary of State, and I ask him to answer it. If, as the Government predict, 2,000 more schools opt out, that will cost the Exchequer—I leave aside the moneys that will be taken from local authorities and local authority schools—an extra £300 million. If another 4,000 schools opt out, that will cost the Exchequer another £600 million. Does that money exist? Are schools which now opt out to be offered the same level of bribes —"financial incentives", to use the Prime Minister's words —that schools have been offered in the past? I offer the Secretary of State the opportunity to explain. Come on —answer the question! This is a crucial issue for every school in the land. If the Secretary of State is unwilling to answer now, he had better answer in the course of his speech, because parents and governors have a right to know whether the same sort of bribes that have hitherto been offered will continue in the future.
A second issue, even more important than whether the level of financial incentives will continue, is selection. An increase in opting out will inexorably lead to greater selection at 11, since the schools and not the local education authorities will make the selection. Some grant-maintained schools have made it explicit that they want to turn from being comprehensives to being grammar schools. In any area we may rapidly see the creation of a rigid hierarchy of schools, with favoured, well-funded opt-outs at the top—grammar schools in all but name—and a second tier of council schools, secondary moderns or no hope schools, to use the words of The Daily Telegraph, at the bottom.
Time and again, during the election campaign and before, I pressed the former Secretary of State to say whether this two-tier system—this recreation of the secondary modern schools—was what the Conservative party wanted. Time and again he dodged the issue, but whether and how children are given their life chances at 11 cannot be a matter for agnosticism. Nor, as The Daily Telegraph witheringly commented in the same editorial, can the Government
maintain its pretence of neutrality over the future of comprehensives by implying that it is simply allowing a hundred flowers to bloom".
Selection was never mentioned in the Tories' manifesto, yet selection at 11 there will be if opting out becomes the norm—and it will be far less fair and far more random selection than ever it was under the 11-plus. That, too, was a point made by the Catholic bishops, who said that
Grant-maintained status would bring a random return to selection, which leads to the neglect of the less able or disadvantaged children.
The Secretary of State should also recognise a point in the powerful speech by his hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), who said that if the Government continue to have no clear policy on whether they favour comprehensive schools or some sort of explicit selection, the consequence will be random selection and a primitive and disorganised policy from which the Conservatives will be the losers.
As the local authority system breaks up and as competition between schools intensifies, so, too, will parental choice decrease. As my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley pointed out, parents will no longer choose schools—schools will choose parents. In the four years since the Education Reform Act 1988, the proportion of
parents successfully getting their first choice of school has fallen, and in areas with large numbers of schools which have already opted out, the anarchy predicted by The Daily Telegraph has already occurred. In the Tory borough of Bromley in London, where eight schools have opted out, 225 pupils and their parents have thus far had no choice of school because it has been impossible to offer them a choice under that authority due to the multiple applications to the opted-out schools now outside the authority's control. As The Times commented in an editorial,
to pretend that the selective opt-out structure emerging as government policy has anything to do with parental choice is a deception".
Then there is the issue of the future administration of secondary schools. Opting out will result in the nationalisation of the school system—in its central takeover by Whitehall. But schools are not islands; their provision must be planned and financed and if not by local authorities, then by whom? Are we to expect under the terms of the much promised White Paper that Whitehall officials will administer the whole school system, or are we to expect appointed boards packed with Conservative place men and women, as happened with health authorities and NHS trusts? The Secretary of State had better tell us in his wind-up speech.
Lastly, the largest question of all: what is the purpose of the journey into the unknown that mass opting out will entail? For Labour, the only test of any education policy is whether it will increase choice and opportunity and raise the standards of education for every child. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend pointed out, there is no evidence that the opting out that has occurred so far has led to higher standards.
Her Majesty's inspectors have spent 300 days on greater and more intensive inspection of grant-maintained schools in their four years of existence than any local authority schools have ever enjoyed. Yet, despite more than three years' intensive HMI attention, not one report has been published by HMI on grant-maintained schools. If those HMI visits and reports spelled out that opting out was leading to higher standards than would otherwise be the case, one can bet that the Government would have published those reports. They have shrouded those reports in secrecy, because they know the truth—that opting out has led to no discernible improvement in education standards. Nor can it. What it has done is to lead to a divided system, a two-tier system, and selection by the back door.
One point on which we should all agree is that standards of education in Britain for many children are not so high as they are in many comparable countries and not so high as they could and should be. Where the Government's policies are likely to lead to an increase in standards and an increase in choice and opportunities for every child, those policies will have our support. But where those policies seek to create a future out of a discredited past, they will have our relentless opposition.
In the article in The Spectator entitled
There is a choice—good or evil",
the Secretary of State opened with the touching words:
I believe in God. I worry about Him. I think that He probably worries about me.
The Secretary of State is not the only one, and he had better understand that his actions will be judged not only by the Almighty in the world to come, but by parents, teaches, governors and pupils in this world who want an end to underfunding, an end to pay-as-you-learn, and an end to double standards, and who want instead real investment and the choice and opportunity which come from delivering the highest standards of education to every child.