Does the Minister share the concern of the people of Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency, that the boon of praise that the Government give for those schools that have opted out has obviously not been shared in Northern Ireland, where it is now apparently policy for grammar schools to report to the education boards when hitherto they reported to the Department of Education? Is this a seamless Government or are we witnessing a different way of governing Northern Ireland, against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland?
The hon. Member will know that my remit does not extend to the schools in Northern Ireland, but I may say from this Dispatch Box, without risking too much, that, first, I shall relay his comments to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I understand that those comments arise from a consultation paper that my right hon. and learned Friend has issued for discussion. Secondly, I also understand that the aim of the specific proposal to which the hon. Gentleman referred is to simplify school funding and not to extend local authority control over schools. Voluntary grammar schools will continue to he self-governing and there is no intention of changing their autonomy in that respect.
Will my hon. Friend, however, bear it in mind that if we manage to achieve extra funds for education in the forthcoming year, many Conservative Members will want to make sure that the money goes straight to schools and not to local education authorities to do with as they will? Will he look seriously at any proposal for extra cash to ensure that it goes direct to schools?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One of the many curious aspects of the policy document that appeared from the Opposition last week was that it tried to justify how, if 10 per cent. of the funding of existing, successful grant-maintained schools was taken away, those schools would still be as effective and efficient as they are at present.
As the Member with probably the country's largest opted-out secondary school in his constituency, with more than 2,000 pupils, may I ask why the Minister thinks that so few schools—he gave a figure of 400—have opted out in the past three years? How many of those have opted out in the past 12 months?
The practical reason why relatively few schools have opted out in the past 12 months compared with the previous 12 months is that more than nine out of 10 governing bodies have still refused to give parents the opportunity to vote. If I may extrapolate from that why that should be so, the reason is that Labour Members and councillors and Labour-controlled councils up and down the country are still utterly opposed to grant-maintained schools, notwithstanding the sweet words that we have heard from the Labour Front Bench.
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity, following his last answer, to reaffirm that the Government will follow the climate of the Education Reform Act 1988 for grant-maintained schools, maintain exactly the same circumstances in which schools can opt out and tell the country very clearly that the gobbledegook that has come from the Labour party recently on grant-maintained schools is not acceptable to a Conservative Government?
I readily reassure my right hon. Friend in that respect. I saw nothing in the past seven days, and I do not suppose that my right hon. Friend did, to persuade us that there was a better way of treating grant-maintained schools than the one that we have established. All the Labour party tried, and failed, to do was to reconcile the preferences of a number of leading Labour politicians with the utter hatred that so many of them have for self-government.