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Of course it is: most grant-maintained schools are good. Someone should introduce the right hon. Member for Sedgefield to his hon. Friend the Member for Walton so that they can get their act together and decide on their attitude to GM status.
It would also be extremely helpful if, at some point in the debate, Opposition Members found time to describe their education policy—assuming they have one. My hon. Friends smile at that, but they know it is true. Are the Opposition still abolitionists, seeking to cram all the nation's children into one type of school, or are they slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a growing acceptance of the Government's policies? Incidentally, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) now believes that league tables are not all bad, perhaps we shall soon hear him talking about standards, excellence and discipline. Perhaps Opposition Members will eventually come round to believing that a measure of competition between schools is desirable.
I believe that the Government's reforms are delivering the goods. It has taken time and it has been a long hard passage from the anything-goes 1960s to the more demanding 1990s. The Education Reform Act 1988 signalled the Government's determination to improve the quality and standards of state education. It was this Government who introduced local management of schools, under which all schools now control 85 per cent. of their budgets. LMS quite naturally signposted the route to grant-maintained status—an imaginative concept much derided by Opposition Members but increasingly accepted by the nation's parents.
It was this Government who introduced the national curriculum and testing, it was this Government who introduced a new system of schools inspection—Ofsted—and it was this Government who introduced league tables, and the GCSE. This Government have expanded advanced education, so that there are now well over 1 million students.
All that has been achieved at great cost indeed. Spending per pupil has risen by almost 50 per cent. in real terms since 1979. Spending on books and equipment is up by 37 per cent. in real terms; and we have not forgotten teachers. I have long maintained in the House that the overwhelming majority of the nation's teachers are dedicated to their profession and the children in their charge. It is therefore entirely right that the Government should recognise that dedication in increased pay. Teachers' average pay has increased in real terms by 57 per cent. since 1979.
Another Government achievement has been the greater part now being played by parents in running their children's schools. There is a powerful argument to the effect that most parents know best what is right for their children. Parents do not leave their brains behind at the school gate when they go in to see their children's teachers. They have a contribution to make—I believe a great one.
Parents like a choice of school, for they recognise that children respond to different challenges and differing school environments. It is this Government who ensured that all parents now receive a written report on their child's progress at least once a year. Schools are now required to publish test and examination results.
The Government's reforms are working, I believe, and state education is improving. The debate initiated by Jim Callaghan in 1976 is beginning to reach a conclusion, despite the ill-conceived opposition of the Liberal and Labour parties to all our reforms. I am convinced that education is now much better than it was when Callaghan started that debate in 1976.
As a foot soldier in the long education battles throughout the 1980s and 1990s I must tell the House that these improvements have occurred not because of the Opposition but despite them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am delighted to hear that support. The Opposition withheld support for the national curriculum and they opposed virtually every other education measure. Only belatedly are they seeing the educational light and ditching their comprehensive dogma and the old equality claptrap. Children are not equal; they do not have the same needs. Parents need freedom and choice to make the right decisions for their children and they will get that only from this Conservative Government.