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Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 10:25 am on 19th July 1991.

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Photo of Mr Derek Fatchett Mr Derek Fatchett , Leeds Central 10:25 am, 19th July 1991

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman wishes to criticise his colleagues in Brent, where I understand the Conservatives are now in charge.

What have the Government done about standards in the past 12 years? What is their record? They have failed in so many ways. They have either done the right thing incorrectly or they have done the wrong thing or they have done nothing at all. We are virtually the only country in western Europe that does not value nursery education and whose Government do not recognise the need to give youngsters a good start. The Minister knocked Labour's ambitious education targets. It would do him good to talk to his ministerial counterparts—some Conservative, some Socialist—in western Europe who will tell him that they have very ambitious targets for young people starting education in their early years. They regard education in the early years not as a drain on resources but as an investment in the future—an investment which they must make if they are to improve educational standards.

It is always worth quoting the remarks of those within the Conservative party. The Carlton club tells us what has happened to the important nursery education service under the Government: Under the Conservative party nursery education is in danger of becoming the Cinderella of the education system. No other Government and no other country would allow such an important provision to become the Cinderella of the system. The Government try to conceal their record and, as always, their statistics should be accompanied with a health warning.

The Carlton club continues: Worse is yet to come, for the same Government policy document on education then goes on to claim, '48 per cent. of under-fives are now in nursery schools. These figures compare excellently with those of many other European countries'". It is a pleasure to find that some people in the Conservative party recognise the truth, and the Carlton club document then does just that: Regrettably, this claim is both false and misleading, and the true picture was accurately stated at the Carlton club education seminar by Malcolm Thornton MP, the Chairman of the Select Committee, who said, 'Sadly, the United Kingdom has one of the lowest proportions of children under five in education of the advanced industrial nations'". The Carlton club document then provides graphics—presumably, realising that that is the best way of getting information across to Members of the Conservative party—under the heading "bottom of the class". That is not what the Minister and Conservative central office claim and the figures in the Carlton club document may come as a bit of a surprise to hon. Members who rely on central office briefings. The percentage of all three and four-year-olds in education in Belgium is 96 per cent. In France, it is 95 per cent.; in Italy, 88 per cent.; in Spain, 66 per cent.; in West Germany, 51 per cent.; and in Holland, 50 per cent. There, at the bottom of the list, is the United Kingdom with only 44 per cent. of all three and four-year-olds in education. How can we raise educational standards when the important early years are ignored by the Government? They do not invest in our young children and we will not improve standards without that investment. They have failed to do something that is crucial to the improvement of educational standards.

One can improve standards in other ways, of course, but that requires some consistency on the part of the Government and this Government's Ministers show a remarkable lack of consistency. They are learning to swim and, on almost every occasion, we see them going down gently in the process, shouting for help.

Let me give two examples. The first concerns the practice and experience of assessment at the age of seven. No one has ever denied the need for diagnostic assessment. That is a myth which Ministers and Back Benchers like to peddle. On the Committee that considered the Education Reform Act 1988, there was never any difference between us on the need for assessment. We all recognise that good teaching is supported by assessment and testing and both the Labour and the Liberal parties expressed that view in Committee. Four years, two Prime Ministers, three Secretaries of State and seven Education Ministers later, no one yet knows how next year's seven-plus assessment will work. Neither teachers nor parents know and I suspect that Education Ministers simply do not have any idea. That is leaving aside what is going to happen with assessment at 11 and 14.

We all remember the claims of the Home Secretary, then Secretary of State for Education, that it was possible to take from a filing cabinet somewhere in the Department a series of assessment tests that could be implemented almost at the stroke of a ministerial pen. For two years children aged seven have been used as guinea pigs and teachers have had no clear definition of what is expected of them. That is all because we have Ministers who are incapable of making up their mids and who simply do not know what they want to use assessment for and what is its value. That inconsistency make life difficult for teachers and makes it difficult to raise standards. Above all, it gives an impression of a Government and Ministers who are not on top of their job and are unable to perform effectively to raise education standards.

I shall give another example—the GCSE, an examination introduced not by the education establishment, which is much criticised by the Government, but by the former Secretary of State for Education and Science, now Lord Joseph. It was introduced by the Conservatives, made to work by individual teachers, supported by parents and, subsequently, even this morning, praised by Ministers. There is a consensus.

What happened? Much of the fundamental thinking behind the GCSE, Lord Joseph's thinking, which has been praised by Ministers, was changed at a stroke in the Prime Minister's speech two weeks ago. There was no consultation with teachers or parents—just a prime ministerial whim announced at the Cafe Royal. Is that the way to improve standards and our education system? If we expect commitment from teachers and support from parents, the Government need to show consistency to improve standards.

The Government could have built on the consensus, but they have failed to do so. The Minister rightly said that there has been a strong element of agreement about a national curriculum. Again, there was no doubt about that in terms of the Education Reform Act. If the Minister were not such a newcomer to education debates, he would know that during the 1987 general election all three main political parties supported the idea of a national curriculum. There will always be arguments about detail, but not about principle, and that education principle was widely accepted.

There is a consensus about change, improvements and raising standards, but what have the Government done? Over the past two weeks, they have made two appointments—David Pascall to the National Curriculum Council and Lord Griffiths to the School Examinations and Assessment Council. Both people were members of the No. 10 policy unit under the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). Both appointments were clearly party political. According to one profile, Lord Griffiths seems to have little to offer in certain respects. The profile says: A former Dean of the City University Business School, he has reached eminence by compliance … and by constituting no threat to the Prime Minister's own intellectual limitations. That may not have been the most flattering of comments. Many teachers and many people involved in local government and in education have noticed that, yet again, the Government believe that making appointments to Government bodies is the sole right of a particular ideological wing of the Conservative party.

We will never build an education consensus and raise standards if education is used as the plaything of one ideological element in the Conservative party. What can be seen from those two appointments, particularly that of Lord Griffiths, is a Government and Ministers who like to hear comments that support their ideological position. We have seen that in the health service. We saw it from the present Secretary of State for Education and Science when he was Secretary of State for Health—each of the health authorities was stripped of political opposition and people were replaced by Conservative party supporters and placemen. That is happening again this time.

If we are to have a system of independent bodies, Ministers should have advisers who are candid friends and are prepared to say, "You are getting it wrong. You need to change." But we are likely to get the ventriloquist's dummies who will give Ministers the responses that they want. There can be no faith in a system that fails to build on consensus but simply builds on the ideology and commitment of one section of the Conservative party.