Schools

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 9:37 am on 19th July 1991.

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Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Education and Science) 9:37 am, 19th July 1991

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance.

The GCSE is a success story. More pupils are entering every year, and the pass rate is rising. However, we need to ensure that those at the top who want to progress to A-levels will not be disadvantaged by the different treatment of course work as between GCSE and A-level. Course work for the latter will in future account for a maximum of 20 per cent. of the assessment, although for a GCSE it can still account for a maximum of 70 per cent.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made that clear in his speech: If the transition from GCSE to A levels is causing difficulties, we must level GCSE up, not lower A level standards down. That is because the A-level remains our bench mark. Our recent White Paper on education and training clearly sets out our commitment to A-level, alongside our belief in a wider curriculum at sixth form. We want to see earlier and larger take-up of vocational courses. Some vocational policies lie beyond the scope of today's debate, but I assure the House of our unswerving commitment to A-levels and to the standards that they set.

We want more pupils to remain at school on the academic or vocational routes. This year, 60 per cent. of all 16-year-olds are staying on at school—but we are not satisfied yet, for we want more of them to continue into higher education. When we came to office, only one pupil in eight entered higher education. Today, the figure is one in five, and by the year 2000 it will be one in three.

The other key to higher standards is a better-paid and well-motivated teaching force. We hope that next week we shall have, by statute, for the very first time, an independent pay review body for teachers, which will put them on a par with doctors, dentists and other professional groups. None of my right hon. and hon. Friends will forget the helpless ambivalence with which Labour first greeted the announcement of that body. Certainly we will never let any teacher forget that Labour—in kow-towing to the militants in the National Union of Teachers who wanted to preserve the right to strike—voted against a pay review body.

Our third aim is greater accountability. Each of our three Education Acts puts parents first, by giving them rights to choose their children's schools; to attend annual parent meetings; to receive information on the curriculum, exam results, and the school budget; and to have regular reports on their children's progress. We will build on those rights by ensuring more systematic inspection. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: The school inspector should be the parents' friend. Wider choice, higher standards and greater accountability are all threatened by Labour. Independent schools would lose their charitable status; the assisted places scheme would be phased out; city technology colleges would be scrapped; grant-maintained schools would be reintegrated; and local education authorities would be back in business—free to dictate policy to their schools, and to direct their customers around the schools in their system.

Labour always defends bureaucracy. When Labour runs cities such as Newcastle and Coventry, almost half those employed under the education budget are not teaching. Labour would not only restrict choice but fudge standards. Its plans include fudge and more fudge. At 16, a pupil could take any option—to stay at school, leave, or return—and still claim the same rewards. Labour has dreamed up something called the advanced certificate for education and training, which they call "ASSET"—which perhaps proves that Labour cannot spell. It would fuse academic and vocational qualifications in a glorious fudge—the same level for plumbers and philosophers, engineers and business students.

Every one of Labour's targets is empty or meaningless. The party's document, "Aiming High", states that every three or four-year-old should have a nursery place, but it does not give any date. Neither does Labour make any commitment. I understand that the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) does not give any priority to that pledge. Labour suggests also that all 16 to 18-year-olds will achieve five GCSEs within five years of a Labour Government, and that within 10 years, all 16 to 19-year-olds will gain at least the equivalent of one A-level.

Those are meaningless targets, having all the logic of Soviet tractor production. If a target must be met by a certain year, it can be met only if the standard is adjusted —and adjusting the standard, as we have come to learn, means debasing it. That is exactly what Labour is planning.

Let us go into Labour's education policy more deeply, and examine the Labour education organisation, the Socialist Educational Association. My hon. Friends may be interested to know that the association's motto is "Educate, Organise, Agitate". Its membership includes the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). I do not know whether the hon. Member for Leeds, Central is a member; the association may be one of those organisations from which Front-Bench spokesmen have forgotten that they are supposed to resign.

The Socialist Educational Association is not at all happy with the curriculum. It would like a curriculum that was pluralist, internationalist and global in approach. All students should leave school having had the chance to write poetry and to understand how Fascism was defeated in the 1940s. Nor is the association happy with the GCSE. It appears to think—I urge my hon. Friends to contain themselves at this point—that the GCSE is too tough; it wants it to be broadened to take in all the ability range. Certainly, the association is not happy with sixth forms. It wants them to be swept away, along with A-levels, in an orgy of anti-elitism. Curiously, it is also not happy with Labour's ideas. At a recent conference in Luton, a resolution called on the Labour Front Bench to stop being defensive and bland over 16 to 19 proposals. The association would prefer everyone to receive a grant at that stage.

Finally and most revealingly, the Socialist Educational Association is not happy with parental choice: Too little attention, it says, has been given to continuity between primary and secondary schools. This would be improved if all the children transferred to their local secondary school from feeder primary schools. Although some parental choice seems inevitable, many problems would be solved if schools ceased to feel that they were competing for customers. There—with the public relations floss scraped off—is the true mind of the Labour party. That is how the party runs Lambeth and Liverpool; that is why Lambeth voters are voting for grant-maintained schools, and why Labour voters there have been begging the Department to intervene. That is why some Lambeth parents will do anything, even cross the river, to escape educational socialism.

Let us be in no doubt about what a future Labour Government would hold in store, should one be elected next year. Let me paint the picture. We would see the closure of many independent schools, robbed of their charitable status; the end of the assisted places scheme; the destruction of 13 city technology colleges; the reintegration of perhaps 200 grant-maintained schools, against the democratic wishes of their parents; and the end of A-levels —this year's new sixth formers could be the last to sit that well-established examination.

Worse than all that, the bureaucrats would be back in charge in the classrooms, and all the policies that go with that would return: the watch on gender rather than grammar, and the insistence that racial discrimination takes priority over linguistic discrimination.

Far from putting more money into education, Labour, as we already know, would take money out of the system. Under Labour, those earning more than £20,000 a year would pay more tax. When the election comes, we shall ensure that the message gets across in every constituency in the country: Labour would increase tax for the average secondary school teacher at the top of the scale, who now earns more than £20,000 a year. That is taking money out of the education system, not putting it in.

Conservative Members remain committed to our reforms—fundamental but necessary reforms, protracted in their implementation but overdue. Our education policy puts parents first. We believe that the key to higher standards lies in wider choice and greater parental accountability.