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Industry and Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:13 pm on 21st November 1994.

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Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 9:13 pm, 21st November 1994

I am not surprised that a Conservative Member wants to know our education policies because Conservatives have certainly abandoned all theirs. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) may be interested in the commitment to grant-maintained schools of the previous Prime Minister, now Baroness Thatcher. She said, in a press conference on 25 June 1987: Schools which opt out will have precisely the same budget as they would have had under the LEA. They certainly will have more latitude"— that is an interesting word— as to how they deal with it. That is to say, how they deal with the money. What does the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth have to say about the way in which that promise has been broken? In August 1991, the present Prime Minister said: We have made no secret of the fact that grant-maintained schools get preferential treatment in allocating grants to capital expenditure. We are against preferential treatment for schools. We favour equity. We are against some children getting preference over others and some children in some schools being given either extra capital or revenue resources that give them an advantage over others. We are against unequal access to schools, with schools choosing pupils rather than pupils and parents being able to choose schools. We are against inequity wherever it exists, and that is why we oppose grant-maintained status.

As I have said, in debating education, I will talk to those working in, and currently committed to, grant-maintained schools to win them over so that they enter the fold of a wider community of education which offers real chance and opportunity to children from all backgrounds and in all neighbourhoods and situations. If I can win them over, so be it.

I make no bones about the fact that we oppose the Government's ideological payment to grant-maintained schools, the bribing of such schools. We shall seek an equitable education system for the future so that parents will not be bribed any more. They now understand the situation. The subject of Monmouth West school was raised at the last Education Question Time. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said that videos had been supplied at public expense to every household because the first time round the parents had not voted for grant-maintained status. In other words, they had not followed the ideological line and had to be given a second opportunity, at which public money provided them with the latest technology to get them to change their minds.

The efforts were in vain because, on the second ballot, 70 per cent. of parents voted against grant-maintained status—some 10 percentage points more than had voted against it the first time round. I recommend that the Government either get a better video or link up to the cable network advocated by the President of the Board of Trade this afternoon.

The truth is that, in every sector, the Government have either capitulated or admitted defeat. For example, on nursery education the Conservative party conference took the great decision that four-year-olds would be provided with nursery schooling, and that has been trumpeted ever since. Let us examine exactly what the Secretary of State now says, and the problems that she is having—not surprisingly, because at a conference fringe meeting she said that she was having difficulty winning over her colleagues to the notion of investing in early education.

The right hon. Lady recently did an interview with David Frost on the programme to which I referred earlier. It was very revealing. David Frost asked her: Do you agree that you can do it by the year 2000—place every four-year-old whose parents want it in nursery education? The right hon. Lady said: I'm not putting a date on it. David Frost said: The cost—£400 million, £2 billion? What do you think the figure is? It's new money. How much? The right hon. Lady replied: I'm not putting a figure on it. Then, David Frost said: A universal primary school place for four-year-olds—that's still an aspiration? The right hon. Lady said: Early years education for children below the statutory school age, that's what we're to provide. That is not nursery education for four-year-olds, never mind three-year-olds. It is a change in the policy and a change in the commitment. That is not surprising as it was only a year ago that the Under-Secretary of State for Schools declared that it was impossible to provide all three and four-year-olds with nursery education. Of course, not long before that, the previous Education Minister, Michael Fallon, declared at a Carlton club dinner that it was not even desirable. It is not a U-turn; it is a series of U-turns—a complete capitulation in terms of the previous agenda and, now, of the new agenda. Everything that the Government have said on education is being reversed.

I shall take head-on the issue of league tables—the crude, flawed league tables; the sugar beet we would not put in our tea until it had been refined. What is the Secretary of State now saying? It is that perhaps, on their own, they are not so good after all. What is the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority about to say? It is—the right hon. Lady has accepted this—that added-value league tables and improvement indices are the way forward, not crude figures provided at a national level. She has even accepted—I congratulate her—that breaking down the national league tables into local authority areas and packaging them by alphabetical order is the best way to deal with the crudity of the information currently available, and that is what will be published tomorrow.

Let us be clear about the fact that the issue for children is standards and achievement in the classroom; it is opportunity at every level and in every part of the country—the opportunity to get the first foot on the ladder of lifelong learning. It is the opportunity to have the education for which, in the past, only the privileged could pay. That is why we will root out mediocrity wherever it exists. We want inner-city children to enjoy the opportunities that others have taken for granted, and we want to lift standards in every school. If that means intervening and using the information and drawing the comparisons provided by modern technology so as to spread the best to the rest, we shall do it.

We shall ensure that good example is spread from one school to another. Where a school is failing, we shall establish whether prior attainment in nursery and primary school has affected the progress of that school's pupils. We shall determine also whether the gender gap is affected by social and economic circumstances or by achievable intervention in the classroom.

We shall make sure that improvement indices tell us how schools are changing and improving their performance, so that we can reward them, changing the funding formula under local management of schools to help schools that are deeply disadvantaged. They will then be able to help children who are in difficulties, be it because of their language or because of the high incidence of special needs.

We shall make sure that no school can choose pupils simply because of their academic background and success, and that no school can exclude a child because of the cost of meeting his or her special educational needs. That is why we favour comprehensive education and reject the crudity of past league tables, which used the market and not intervention to punish and to denigrate rather than to lift and to bring about greater achievement.

At the heart of our policies is using information to bring about change and improvement, and providing the ability to use intelligent information to enable those in the classroom to do their job. We shall work with teachers and give them the backing that will ensure that the ideological experiments of the past few years are a forgotten nightmare. Those experiments to implement, revise and further implement the national curriculum alone cost £744 million, and brought constant turmoil and change that affected the life chances of many children in recent years.

If one views the whole vista of our education, one can see why it has been failing compared with industrial competitors in every other part of the world. Eighty per cent. of Germany's 18-year-olds are in some form of education or qualification training, compared with 43 per cent. in Britain. That is a disgraceful record, and to catch up with other countries that have already invested in the future will be an enormous task. That will be achieved not by turning college against college or by establishing super leagues at universities, but by ensuring that we get the best out of the investment that we make and design the system to be accountable and accessible, and by offering the diversity that meets the challenge of a learning society for the future.

We do not want a system that results in business ethics that turn colleges and universities into places that some people believe are commercial enterprises—as was clearly the case at Derby college, where the buying of French restaurants and the purchase of night clubs despoiled and undermined confidence in public investment and accountability. That is true whether it is St. Philip's college in Birmingham, or the situation that arose in Huddersfield, which my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) vigorously revealed.

We want new probity in the education system. I moved from health to education only to find that the same problems of nepotism and of potential corruption are raising their heads in the education service because the same market-driven attitudes exist there as in the NHS of the 1990s. In the week of youth awareness—a week when we should be turning our minds to how we can help to provide a confident future of citizenship and achievement for our young people—it is time that we had a positive agenda for the 750,000 young people who are not in a training scheme, who are not in further or higher education and who do not have a job.

The Government have abandoned 750,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Those 750,000 illustrate why investment in education and training is an investment for our economy and for social cohesion. The two go hand in hand and lead to the ability of people to earn their living, to use their enterprise and to take advantage of the information technology explosion that faces Britain and the rest of the world. They must have the ability to provide for themselves and for their families—independence and interdependence going hand in hand.

The Labour party's agenda is one for the future. It is focused on how lifelong learning can be achieved for everybody, not for the few. It should no longer be the privilege of those who went to public school or those who previously were able to get into university. We want to see the opening up of education as a central tool of the next Labour Government in implementing our economic and social policies. That Government will ensure that investment is directed to giving everyone the life chance that we wish to extend to him or her, wherever the individual comes from and whatever his or her background. Their future is assured with us.