It is difficult to say how many haw been in favour. However, our statistics can point out the way in which some of the responses were opposed. For example, we analysed the 1,312 responses from organisations on a simple basis and, in principle, only 94 were opposed. My hon. Friend will be happy to know that of the 11,790 individual responses, only 1,536 were opposed in principle.
Has the Minister had an opportunity to read the new clause that has been tabled to the Education Reform Bill, which asks the Government to set up an Arts Education Council to promote the arts in education as part of the national curriculum? Is she aware of the great concern felt by parents, educationists and artists about the position of the arts in the national curriculum? Will she look again at the new clause and see it as a constructive way forward for promoting the arts in the curriculum?
Does my hon. Friend accept that the proposals for the national curriculum will be welcomed widely by parents, who will see them as having particular relevance to the world of work? Does she further accept that many employers will welcome them because the national curriculum will help to bridge some of the gaps that have shown up in education and caused problems in industry when young people have entered business and commerce?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Many parents are anxious to know how their children are doing. The national curriculum will assist them in that process throughout a child's school career.
Many employers have complained that some of the young people who have left school at the age of 16 and gone straight to work have not covered sufficient subjects during their education as it stands at present. The national curriculum will go a long way towards remedying that situation.
Having grossly underfunded the introduction of the new general certificate of secondary education, will there be a similar denial of resources to schools to accompany the introduction of the national curriculum?
I must advise the hon. Gentleman that the GCSE is one of the best resourced examinations ever to be introduced in this country. It was supported on a continuous basis through its pilot schemes, and when it was first introduced by several millions of pounds, so the hon. Gentleman's accusation is unacceptable. The national curriculum proposals are being looked at as a pilot programme.
Are Ministers succeeding in removing the anxieties of religious bodies and individuals, who fear that religious instruction may be squeezed and suffer when the core curriculum is introduced?
My hon. Friend knows that we are taking great care to respond to the concern of many people about the place of religious instruction in schools. Therefore, we have taken steps in our national curriculum proposals to strengthen the place of religious education in the school curriculum by strengthening the methods by which parents may have redress if they feel that religious instruction is not taking place as it was intended it should in the Education Act 1944.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a balance must be struck between providing parents with the type of school that they want for their children and the creation of establishments, the outcome of which may well be further fragmentation of society — for example, a Scientology school? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will take account of such dangers in reviewing opted-out schools?
My hon. Friend will know that grant-maintained schools will not initially be allowed to change their character. We intend to table amendments to the Bill to ensure that any proposal to change the religious ethos of a school is equivalent to a significant change in character, and such a change would be subject to full public procedures.
Is the Secretary of State aware that there is deep worry throughout the education community, and well beyond it—among parents—about the opting-out process? Is it not seen by many to be a blow struck at the local education authorities, which have been built up by a process of democracy over 100 years? Is it not an attempt by the Government to introduce private education by the back door?
The hon. Gentleman knows, because he is a member of the Standing Committee on the Bill and we are just reaching the relevant clauses, that the proposal for grant-maintained schools is designed to increase the choice available to parents. Many parents, I believe, will want to exercise that choice. There is nothing compulsory about it, and if parents and governors wish to come together and persuade the Secretary of State that a school should be grant-maintained, I see no reason why that should not be allowed.
I think that many issues will be laid at the door of the right hon. Lady, who was one of my predecessors when a member of the Labour Government. Not only did she destroy the direct-grant schools, but she tried to legislate to destroy the grammar schools. We stopped that in 1980.
Grant-maintained schools will not be directly analogous to direct-grant schools, but they will provide a wider variety and choice for parents. That is the choice that we want—for comprehensive, grammar, secondary modern, Church and independent schools, and now for city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools as well.
The Secretary of State will know that there is deep concern that, while the decision to opt out will be made by a majority of parents voting, that could nevertheless represent a very small minority of parents in the school. Will he say how many representations he has received from his own Back Benches, and what he intends to do about it?
I know that the whole House is waiting with bated breath to know exactly what the new Liberal policy is on these matters. Until the last week or so the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was putting forward a policy in favour of schools opting in, and he has also said that he wants them to opt out. We should like to know the answer.
When it comes to the proportion of parents voting, 51 per cent. is indeed a high hurdle. No Government since the war have been elected with such a high vote.
Is not one of the causes for a school to consider opting out the proposal by a local education authority to close a popular school whose numbers have been artificially restricted and which has been deliberately underfunded by that authority? Although my right hon. Friend cannot comment on such proposals until they reach his desk, can he confirm that he is naturally sympathetic to such schools?
I know what is behind my hon. Friend's question, and I certainly cannot comment upon it. However, if popular schools have been underfunded, other measures in the Bill will improve that as well. It is absurd to have empty desks in popular schools, and our open enrolment clauses will put paid to that practice. Obviously, many different types of school in many different circumstances will want to consider grant-maintained status, and my hon. Friend may well have identified one such circumstance.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the overwhelming majority of the 900 responses that he has received have been opposed to the opting-out proposal and anything like it? Is the weight of opposition to the proposal the reason why the Secretary of State is rigging the balloting arrangements, so that a very small minority of parents can determine the long-term future of a school?
A figure of 51 per cent. of those voting is indeed a very high hurdle in any ballot. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that our proposals are not popular, he should recall that a Gallup poll last October indicated that 1 in 5 parents are interested in opting out. According to the most recent poll, that has risen to 1 in 3.
Can my right hon. Friend say whether there will be established criteria for opting out, or whether each case will be looked at entirely on its merits, much as a section 12 notice?