There are currently 145 Department staff dealing mainly with grant-maintained schools policy, of whom around 95 are based in Darlington and the remainder in London. The total is likely to increase to some 250 to 300, with most of the increase taking place in Darlington and York, before the transfer of certain responsibilities to the Funding Agency for Schools in April 1994. Thereafter, Department for Education staffing will reduce.
But is not what is being built up here—in the Department and then the funding agency—just another bureaucracy, which will be further away from the schools, which is not accountable to the local electorate and which schools have no opportunity to opt back out of? Does the Minister agree that it is not therefore so surprising that the large majority of schools show no sign of wanting to go for grant-maintained status and prefer to stick with the devil they know?
As the right hon. Gentleman has already heard from the Dispatch Box this afternoon, the number of schools applying is nearing 1,000 and we expect that figure to be reached before the end of the year. Let me make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that grant-maintained schools are self-governing and are not run from Whitehall. More important, those schools, by their very nature, are bringing decisions closer to parents, teachers and local people. I am surprised that a party that used to claim that it was in favour of developing power is now so opposed to the concept.
Does my hon. Friend agree that some special schools such as George Rainey school in my constituency would benefit from grant-maintained status as set out in the Education Bill that is now in the other place? Will he assure me that staff at the Department for Education and the Funding Agency for Schools will do everything in their power to help those schools to opt out in the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves?
My hon. Friend will understand if I say that all cases will be assessed on their merits. I am certain that most schools in the country would benefit from moving to grant-maintained status, as those that have already done it have found.
How many officials in the Department will be involved in allocating budget for grant-maintained schools? Is the Minister aware that one of the consequences of schools opting into centralised control is that some grant-maintained schools still do not know their budget for the current financial year and therefore cannot plan staffing levels of curriculum development? Is not it a sign of the Government's incompetence that grant-maintained schools have to complain to the Labour party that this Government cannot set their budget properly?
The only thing that the House is awaiting from the hon. Lady is a clear statement of her party's attitude to grant-maintained schools. We heard at the last election that she planned to abolish them. It will be interesting to discover whether we have to wait another couple of years to find out whether that will still be Labour's policy at the next election.
Is the Minister aware that, in the past few weeks, I have visited a number of grant-maintained schools in my constituency and that all of them pointed out to me the fact that the service that they were receiving from the GM S unit at Darlington was absolutely first-class —that nothing was too much effort for it? Will my hon. Friend ignore the nonsense spoken by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and pass on our gratitude to his officials?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend found that his schools have had excellent experiences. All hon. Members visiting grant-maintained schools across the country will find that they have a better atmosphere and are enthusiastic. I urge hon. Members who have not yet taken advantage of opportunities to make such visits to do so.