It may be unusual for other reasons that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has yet to tell us, but I anticipate that will be unusual as it will concentrate overwhelmingly on standards rather than funding in schools. Those of us involved in education—there are some familiar faces in the Chamber—will know that such debates tend to be dominated by funding.
The reason why the debate should concentrate on standards is simple, and I can sum it up clearly. First, those who continue to believe that funding or input measurement is more important than output measurement or qualifications clearly have not been looking at the annual summaries of achievements and examination results. There is no correlation between money spent and those achievements.
Secondly, that view allows lazy thinkers, who assume that it is just a question of funding, to get away from the essence of what should be happening in each of our schools. Let me make it clear at the outset that the Government's top priority is to raise standards of achievement for all pupils in all schools. One has only to look at the facts to see that we can be proud of our record.
This year, standards have again improved. Schools have achieved the best GCSE and A-level results ever. The percentage of higher grades awarded in GCSE is now up to 53.7 per cent. The overall pass rate for GCE A-levels is up to 85.5 per cent. Those results are a tribute to teachers, pupils and parents alike. They are the measurable result of Government policies on standards—although Opposition parties have opposed virtually every measure in the past decade. I shall touch on that later.
Much more can be achieved. Our challenge is to ensure that every pupil is achieving at the highest level they are able. To accomplish that, schools need to provide their pupils with a top-quality education and to settle for nothing less than the best. However, schools cannot do it alone. They need support from central and local government and all the key educational partners.
There is, of course, no particular secret as to what makes a good school. The features that the best schools share include: strong leadership from the head teacher and the senior management; a strong moral ethos, with a clear focus on the importance of learning; high-quality teaching and learning which encourages excellence; a disciplined environment and mutual respect between pupils and staff; parental support and the involvement of the local community; and, not least, a sense of enjoyment and self-confidence shared by all in the school.
Although there is no secret, the challenge is to translate those qualities into every school. Schools know only too well the importance of getting a child's education right. After all, they have only one opportunity. Virtually all schools share the ambition to provide their pupils with the best education. I also believe that schools benefit from guidance and need support if they are to improve year on year and sustain that improvement. The improving schools programme brings that support together for the benefit of schools.
The programme is a concerted effort to ensure that schools have the necessary tools to secure year-on-year improvement, starting from the assumption that every school, even the best in the land, is capable of continuous improvement. It provides a coherent framework within which that improvement can be achieved.
The programme is driven by the ideas of the consultative group on school standards, which I chair on behalf of the Secretary of State. That group brings together leading practitioners from schools, universities and the business community, as well as representatives of local education authorities, the Office for Standards in Education, and key Government agencies such as the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Teacher Training Agency and the Funding Agency for Schools. I am grateful to all those bodies for their support, and to the individuals concerned, who give up many hours on the work of the group.
In its first year, the consultative group established a set of core principles, which included: placing pupils' learning at the heart of the programme; recognising that schools themselves are the main agents for improvement, with support and pressure from national and local partners; the central importance of schools re-examining their teaching and learning processes; and the importance of school development planning, with the use of comparative information and target-setting. I shall say a little about each of those core principles.
At the heart of the process of school improvement is the use of hard evidence about performance to identify strengths, weaknesses and priorities for improvement. The programme has shown clearly that, when schools set out systematically to improve standards, those standards rise.
For example, during the first year of the programme, guidance has been given in the booklet "Setting Targets to Raise Standards". More than 25,000 copies have been ordered in the first six months after publication. It contains guidance and ideas on how schools can use pupil performance level data to identify goals for individual pupils, groups, classes or the whole school. A key to its success is that it draws on excellent existing practice and practical examples.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) no doubt knows of the Grove primary school in Birmingham. It has the clear expectation that all pupils should progress by half a national curriculum level a year. Pupils falling behind are quickly identified for extra help. High achievers are encouraged to move forward as far as they can.
By using a range of performance information, including national curriculum attainments, the school has focused its resources effectively on raising attainment and addressing areas of weakness. The quality of teaching is very good, especially in mathematics. The proof that the approach has helped to deliver excellence—hon. Members will be fascinated by this fact—is that, in the year that the report was written, four pupils at that primary school achieved a higher grade GCSE pass in mathematics.
I could have quoted other examples from across the country—
My teaching experience was mainly in physics rather than mathematics. Is my hon. Friend aware of the continuing shortage of physics and mathematics teachers in schools? I know that the Government are doing a great deal to address that. I hope that my hon. Friend will have a chance to explain what is being done in that very important area.
My hon. Friend is right. The Teacher Training Agency has responded seriously to our request that it should consider the likely flow of teachers in and out over the next few years. My hon. Friend has identified one area in which there is a clear need for greater recruitment. We shall continue to examine further any possible measures to stimulate interest in subjects such as mathematics and physics.
Targeting can be used in a variety of ways. I look forward to hearing the well trailed comments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and the hon. Member for Yardley on targeting the under-achievement of boys. Targeting can be used on individuals or on groups of pupils, such as under-achieving boys.
I should like to highlight another publication—"Benchmarking School Budgets"—which shows how schools can improve their financial planning and value for money by sharing information on how they spend their budget. That simple approach works. One of the head teachers involved in the pilot project said:
I am now more confident at setting budgets—it's not just a question of squeezing costs, but being bolder in taking positive action.
Every school involved in the exercise reported having discovered ways of finding more money for the chalk face. I commend that excellent exercise to all schools.
We have been building the partnership between key agencies. I have already mentioned the consultative group. In March, Ofsted, SCAA and the TTA came together to host a series of conferences entitled "Teachers Make a Difference", which helped to clarify the agenda on pedagogy and achieve a closer focus on teaching. [Laughter.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Newham, South should laugh. I realise that he found the title humorous, but I should have thought that there was no disagreement between us on the importance of teachers. I shall flag up the humorous parts later, if he wants.
I suppose that we were bound to get to the bottom of it sooner or later, if hon. Members will pardon the expression. We have clearly got in there early. Hansard will show that I voted to retain corporal punishment in 1986. I was on the losing side. I speak with the additional benefit of being married to a teacher of many years experience who also believes that, as a last resort, it was a useful deterrent. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is no question of the Government bringing in such a proposal. Unless new Labour is moving faster by the day, I assume that those on his Front Bench take the same approach at the moment.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has raised an important issue. What is to happen to a pupil who is consistently and seriously troublesome? Is it better to expel him or to bring him to heel with a stroke or two of the cane on his bottom, without being brutal? When corporal punishment was available in moderate measure, many boys who would now be expelled were not.
From his experience as a former senior teacher, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) speaks with considerable authority. In the two years that I have been involved as a Minister in discussions with every teacher association and governors group, as well as other interested bodies, none of those groups has asked for the return of corporal punishment as part of a package of measures on discipline. As my hon. Friend would expect, I listen to professional groups.
I shall willingly give way in a moment.
The measures announced this week in the new Education Bill clearly reflect the views put to us by many teacher groups. If teacher groups said that, in addition to the measures that we are introducing in the light of their representations, they also wanted us to consider the return of corporal punishment, we would do so. However, there has been no such approach or suggestion, so, as my right hon. Friends have made clear this week, there is no suggestion of including corporal punishment in legislation.
My hon. Friend has almost taken the words out of my mouth, but not quite. Is he aware that, in my area of Norfolk, there has already been a strong welcome from teachers' representatives for the measures on discipline that are about to be introduced in the Education Bill? That is important and relevant.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I appreciate that the new measures will not have quite the headline-striking capacity as the subject on which we have exchanged views in the past couple of minutes. However, in truth, those measures which my hon. Friend correctly identifies are the result of negotiations and discussions, and represent what teacher representatives say they wish to have.
I will not make a habit of intervening during my hon. Friend's speech.
Although I wholly support what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) said, is it not a fact that, when corporal punishment was available, in moderate and reasonable terms and under the proper supervision of the head or his deputy—the use of corporal punishment should not go wider than that—far fewer children were expelled? A line was drawn.
Corporal punishment was not always a cure—nobody could claim that—but a line was drawn beyond which pupils usually would not go. Many fewer children appeared in court, and many fewer were expelled from school, resulting in no education. It is a serious matter which we need to address seriously, yet the Labour party is running away from it, as it always does.
Everything that my hon. Friend says is correct, although he will accept in turn, I think, that there are other aspects to the matter. Those aspects have no doubt influenced not just all the teacher associations I mentioned, but many others.
Before that interesting small divertissement, we were talking about the improving schools programme, and I said that I would not be talking much about resources. In truth, as I hope the House is starting to see, the argument is not essentially a resources argument. However, at the margin, there have been opportunities for the better steering of resources within the context of the improving schools programme.
Those have included changes to the arrangements for the school effectiveness grants, amounting to £130 million, so that schools can better target their improvement efforts. Every school that is inspected by Ofsted subsequently receives additional support to help it to implement changes in response to the inspection team's findings, on approval of its plan.
We all agree that resources are not the only factor. However, the Minister spoke about their distribution and availability. Does he agree that the lack of resources for special needs in the case of a pupil in a Nottinghamshire school and the inability of the governors, the school or the local education authority to provide those resources is at the heart of the present discontent? Does he agree that it is a matter not just of the volume of resources, but of their availability to meet the needs of pupils in the right place, at the right time and in the right way?
The hon. Gentleman properly invites me into one of our two causes célèbres—that is the second French phrase this morning for the hon. Member for Walton. I hesitate to go into the matter, and if I do go in, I hesitate to go in through the door through which the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) invites me. I do not believe that, at heart, what is going on at Manton is summed up overwhelmingly in terms of the special needs funding available to Nottinghamshire. A number of issues are involved, not least whether the main responsibility should reside with the governors, as the Government believe. That point applies to all schools, including Manton. There is also the question of what the responsibilities of teachers and local education authorities are.
The Government have taken special needs seriously. The hon. Member for Newham, South has played a part in that, and he knows that there was wide support for the code when it was introduced. He also knows that extra money has been provided. Special needs is one of the areas that we look at each year when considering annual funding. Nottinghamshire gets significant funding from the Government, and I would do a disservice to some of the wider issues involved in Manton if I agreed today that the problem was essentially special needs funding. I believe, in fairness, that it is about rather larger issues.
I mentioned the funding that now arrives at all schools post-inspection. We have used a few million pounds of that funding to support 23 school improvement initiatives, all of which focus on the use of performance data to set targets in primary and special schools. Information about the initiatives will be widely disseminated, so that other schools can learn from the experience.
I return to the point that at the heart of the matter is the work of teachers and head teachers. Our challenge is to equip teachers with the necessary skills for the demanding job of working with young people. We have risen to that challenge, making teaching and its improvement a high priority.
We place schools at the heart of initial training, which my hon. Friends have welcomed. We gave Ofsted the right to inspect and publish reports on training providers. We recently established the Teacher Training Agency to raise standards in teaching, providing a focus for teacher training.
The Minister referred to the important work done by the Teacher Training Agency and the important work done by teachers. Does he share the view expressed earlier this week by the head of the TTA? She expressed considerable concern about the constant barrage of criticism of teachers. She said:
Teachers feel embattled, caught in a cross-fire like civilians in some-one else's war. This is undermining their determination to make things better.
Does the Minister agree with that view?
I have learnt to treat with some reserve reports of extracts of speeches. I make that point from practical experience. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has had a similar experience of selective quotation being used against him—not by Conservative Members, of course!
The serious point, to which I shall come in a moment, is that not only Her Majesty's inspectors, but all Ministers regularly pay tribute to the overwhelming professionalism and dedication of the teaching force. When one goes on to point out that, none the less, a small minority need improvement or whatever, one finds that the following morning, the only thing reported is that second part of the speech.
One thing we need—this is a comment addressed to those outside the Chamber—is for those who report on education to seek broadly to reflect the views expressed by people in public life on education. Overwhelmingly, those people say the same thing—that teachers are not criticised as much as the reports in many of the media make out. We are all in the hands of the media, and I hope that, in future, they will report our comments in a more balanced way.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), with reference to the annual report of Her Majesty's chief inspector, was making a point about the emphasis placed by the inspector on the figure of 15,000 teachers who were said to be failing. The inspector did not refer to the percentage, and no comparison was made with other professions. He did not point out that one would expect the same proportion of failure or whatever in professions such as medicine or the law. The emphasis was on the number of teachers, and that figure was flagged up as evidence that the teaching profession as a whole was lagging far behind other professions.
As soon as I have answered immediate points, I intend to turn to the whole question of inspections and to mention the chief inspector's annual report. If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself for a moment, I shall seek to cover the points he has made.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the vast majority of teachers are dedicated and very hard-working, and that that reputation is jeopardised by a very small minority of sub-standard teachers? Will he consider ways in which sub-standard teachers may receive mid-career retraining? Where that fails, will he consider simplifying, indeed shortening, the mechanism of getting rid of bad teachers, because it is a very long and cumbersome process at present?
My hon. Friend makes some very valid points. I especially endorse his earlier comments about the overall value and excellence of teachers. One keeps saying that, and that is why comments that are sometimes attributed to either Ministers, chief inspectors or whomsoever, are usually taken out of context. We invariably stress that we are talking about a minority.
Many years ago, when I still had a proper job, I qualified as a chartered accountant. I do not know how to say this delicately, let alone from the Dispatch Box—I shall whisper it—but some accountants are not really up to the job. I do not consider that, because I recognise that, as do all my hon. Friends, it damns the accountancy profession—there may be other reasons for that—or that merely raising the point somehow increases the schadenfreude of accountants in general. That is a German word.
The hon. Gentleman is on the ball this morning.
I hope that we can move just a little towards an intelligent, mature discussion of such matters and recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) rightly said, that we need to make improvements in the initial selection of teachers and the way in which they are reviewed during their work; and, yes, when one is under-performing, either ensure that they perform better or, if necessary, relieve them of their responsibilities if they show that they are simply not up to the job.
I said that I wanted to say a few words about Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, and the hon. Member for Walton has led me nicely to the subject.
Chris Woodhead has brought his considerable talent and passionate concern for the improvement of education received by the nation's children to bear on this issue.
His unswerving commitment to the crusade against schools that are performing badly, which short-change their pupils with inadequate standards of teaching, has legitimised the most difficult questions—those that need to be asked where education offered by a school does not come up to scratch. I am just about to talk about the very good schools, but we should be clear that we need to look at the whole continuum of schools when considering education. Unless we are prepared to tackle the weakest schools and teachers, we will not raise educational standards.
It is simply untrue that the chief inspector has dwelt solely on the bad news. For the past two years, in his annual report, he has identified a larger number of outstanding and excellent schools, and others which are not only good but improving. The Secretary of State, myself and my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Education and Employment have helped celebrate the success of many of those schools at a series of receptions across the country designed specifically to get over the message of some of the good work that is going on in our schools.
We rightly highlight the outstanding achievement of our best schools, but in truth, transforming the worst 2 per cent. or so of our schools is having a significant impact on the quality of education offered across the country, not least to many who have previously suffered some of the poorest education.
In the past three years, Ofsted has identified more than 200 schools that have failed to provide an acceptable level of education. Some of those, frankly, have been failing their pupils for many years, and this Government have stopped the rot. Once identified as failing, the school, jointly with the local education authority, must prepare a recovery plan to a strict deadline. As hon. Members know, Ofsted returns termly to monitor the implementation of the plan.
I take great pride in evidence that the policy works. The vast majority of schools on special measures are making good progress. Indeed, 10 have improved so much that they have come off special measures, and more should follow this year. More than 85 per cent. of the other schools monitored by Ofsted are making good or reasonable progress. If the improving schools programme had done nothing else than turn around that worst 2 per cent., and that was widely known, there would be, if I dare say it, dancing in the streets. Education is being transformed where it matters, and none of it would have happened without the impetus of our commitment to school improvement.
The hon. Gentleman scoffs, but the reality is that inspection reports available in the old system were discussed in private among consenting adults in the Inner London education authority. Nobody ever got to know about them, rarely did reforms occur, and standards continued at an appallingly low level.
Where a school fails to make progress, we will transfer it to the control of an education association. We will not hesitate to do so. The House should be aware that nine schools that have so far been found to be significantly failing—including, of course, Hackney Downs school— have been closed. I should stress that my concern is to achieve improvement in all our schools. The lesson to be learned is that one does not have to be ill to get better.
I cannot resist intervening, because I went to Hackney Downs to see it in operation as a grammar school. I was also at its opening as a comprehensive school—first under the ILEA and then Hackney local authority. That school was totally failed by Labour party policies and administration. It has to be said, and it is known, that there was one teacher to every eight pupils, and the money spent on pupils exceeded the national average by 300 per cent. Yet the school failed totally, after a brilliant beginning, in a wonderful building, with a very good base of excellent boys and very good staff. It was the Labour party's failure, so let us take no lessons from it on education.
My hon. Friend refers to the tragedy of Hackney Downs school. Those a little older than myself will remember it in its heyday. The lessons to be learned—there are many to be drawn from Hackney Downs—including the near-irrelevance of high funding and low class sizes when faced with a collapse of authority, and an education authority's inability or unwillingness to step in and turn a school around are. I am afraid, a reverse tribute to that authority.
Of course nobody on either side of the House would support or condone failing schools, but will the Minister comment on the ignorance and failure of the then Conservative-controlled Calderdale council to take into account representations about the inevitability of the problems at the Ridings school when the amalgamation went through?
I was confident that our other cause célèbre would come up this morning. I am happy on most occasions to debate what I submit is a multi-faceted problem, but I certainly reject outright the hon. Gentleman's implication that amalgamating two schools-even two schools with problems-necessarily and inevitably produced a new school that could not or would not cope. That is not true, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there are examples across the country of schools that have been created in unpropitious circumstances that are being turned round or have been turned round. The issues are rather wider than he implies.
What is certain is that a school with appalling results seemed to wait, sit around and descend, until other matters—in this case teacher action—took over. That raises other issues—including, of course, LEA responsibility. As I have already said, although the hon. Member for Walton may not remember, LEAs have a role in helping to turn round schools. They also have a watching brief to ensure that schools do not descend arid degenerate to levels where some of the sort of things that we are reading about may take place.
I am conscious that a number of hon. Members wish to contribute, and I do not wish to delay the House because I look forward to hearing their contributions. In concluding, I wish to flag up what my right hon. Friend has already announced about shaping up initial teacher training. I will not repeat our proposals in detail, because I would like to think that hon. Members on both sides of the House are aware of them, but our scheme recognizes the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury raised a short while ago—the continuing importance of tackling teacher quality. When better to tackle that than at the outset of the exercise?
I also wish to cover target setting. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set out our plans to require schools to set and publish annual targets for improvement. That further initiative of the improving schools programme will lead schools to learn from the best practice in target setting across the country. In doing so, schools will bring together sound management processes which have already been shown to lead to improvement.
Schools will have five stages to follow. First, they will ask how well they are doing, and they will seek performance data on all aspects of their work. Secondly, they will compare themselves with other schools, to establish how well they should be doing and to establish priorities for improvement. Thirdly, from this information, schools will be well placed to set clear targets to improve pupil achievement, individual and collective. Fourthly, having set the targets, they will have to turn them into plans of action. Fifthly, they will have to revisit those plans. That programme is one that ex-council leaders and others will recognise as a proper and normal action cycle. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will also consult the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority further.
The debate we will enjoy this morning about raising standards in schools would have been virtually impossible, in the same context, 17 years ago, except in a purely theoretical way. It would have been virtually impossible to identify a failing school in public before 1979, or to discuss it and ensure that it was turned round.
I have given way a lot, and I am anxious to make progress.
It is only because the Government have introduced measures aimed at raising standards in schools that we are now able to have an informed debate. We will no doubt hear shortly from the hon. Member for Walton that new Labour has discovered a new-found enthusiasm for raising standards in schools, but what new Labour says now is unbelievable. Their words today are worlds apart from how old Labour has voted consistently over the past decade, and what new Labour says today is totally divorced from what new Labour is doing in town halls up and down the country.
My hon. Friend mentioned consistency. Does he think that we should have a new subject called consistency on the national curriculum, and that we should send the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) back to school?
If the subject on the curriculum were consistency, many Opposition Members would struggle at key stage 1.
Labour's record has been one of opposition to each and every measure to raise standards. I find it hard to take seriously a claim that Labour now has a programme of its own to bring higher standards in our schools.
I will not give way, because I am finishing my speech.
The Opposition do not seem to understand, let alone accept, that their friends and fellow socialists control the worst-performing local authorities. For instance, the Labour party runs nine of the 10 local education authorities with the worst GCSE results. I do not say that to score points, but to point out that, if the Labour party had discovered some miraculous elixir of school improvement, we would surely have seen a significant improvement in results in those areas.
We have not, and we are entitled to have grave doubts. Indeed, Councillor Graham Lane, the most senior Labour education councillor, speaks only of accelerating a programme to bring grant-maintained schools under LEA control and abolish grammar schools. So much for Labour's commitment to excellence.
I look forward to the debate, and to contributions from both sides of the House. I am glad to have put on record the fact that only through the persistence of this Government have we got improving standards in our schools, within a framework that delivers a better education for all our pupils.
I assumed that we were here this morning to provide a platform for the morality statement from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, but the Secretary of State made something of a faux pas earlier in the week. As a result, the launch of yet another policy initiative has been scuppered.
I closed my eyes for a time during the Minister's speech, not simply because of his delivery, but because I wanted to imagine the context in which he was speaking. For a flashing moment. I thought it was the chair of education for Birmingham city council, because, almost word for word, line for line and policy for policy, the Minister had taken all his thoughts from that most excellent of authorities. Incidentally, that is the authority whose chief education officer was described as a madman by a former Secretary of State, who paid the penalty in the courts.
Yes, that was the exact word—he was called a nutter. Yet that is the man who has been at the forefront of carving out the very policies that the Government now seek to plagiarise from a Labour authority and the Labour party.
The context in which the Minister put his opening remarks about standards simply amazed me. I should like to take the Minister on a short trip around the educational world as everybody else sees it, at least those who do not wear the rose-coloured glasses that seem to be de rigueur
on the Government's side of the House today. [Interruption.] When I get into my Serbo-Croat, it will really throw the Minister.
Let us talk about all our schools, including nursery schools. The Minister and I recently sat on opposite sides on the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill. The pilot schemes have become phase 1, but there has been a massive shortfall of places in those schemes. More than a quarter of four-year-olds in pilot areas failed to get a nursery place through the scheme.
Those are not my figures: they come from leaked memoranda, from the Conservative-controlled authorities in London, that have come into the hands of the Labour party and, as the Minister knows, have been well publicised. The Government have been economical with the truth. They have provided the figures for the number of vouchers issued, but not the number of vouchers redeemed, and that figure tells us how many children have secured a place.
I shall give the Minister some figures. In Westminster, only 58 per cent. of eligible four-year-olds got places. In Kensington and Chelsea, the figure was only 59 per cent., and in Wandsworth, 20 per cent. did not get a place. Instead, £1 million has been wasted on advertising, to add to the £20 million that will be wasted on bureaucracy if the Government have their way on the scheme.
The hon. Gentleman could scarcely be more wrong. All four phase 1 authorities say that the scheme is going well administratively. All of them have got back as much or more money than they anticipated. Norfolk have opened 26 new nurseries, and more than a quarter of all pre-school groups have expanded their sessions. Furthermore, I repeat, for something like the 10th or 12th time, that £20 million will not be spent on bureaucracy, but £5 million will be spent on the administration of the scheme and £15 million on inspecting, for the first time, every provider.
I take issue with the Minister; I will send him copies of the internal memoranda and let him make up his mind on that basis, not on the party political pap which he seems to be fed by his colleagues in those authorities.
What the Labour party will do could not be more different. We will guarantee to provide a place for every three and four-year-old. The Minister mentioned targets earlier, but we will establish targets to provide for three-year-olds as well as four-year-olds through local co-operation between education authorities, the voluntary sector and the private sector in true partnership.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs some remedial English lessons. It means precisely what I said: it is a voluntary partnership between all sectors.
I can give the hon. Gentleman an example. The Pre-School Learning Alliance has identified 200 black holes where there is no provision. If the potential provider in one of those areas were a private provider, we would work in partnership to ensure that places were available. Such partnerships will be needs-led, but the biggest need is to provide of the places.
This may be another example of the Labour party saying one thing and doing another. On 29 April 1994, the then leader of the Labour party came to Ealing and said that, if Labour won control of Ealing council, every child between three and five years of age would have a place in a nursery school if parents wanted it. The Labour party won control a month later, but only one extra class has been provided, and thousands of parents have been disappointed.
We are debating national policy, not local delivery under a Conservative Government who are not interested in assisting local education authorities to provide nursery places. We will provide a balance, and will support nursery education. We will offer an integrated programme of early-years provision.
We will also encourage partnership on parenting with community health service workers, which is the practice in Birmingham. When the Minister goes on about good practice, I get a sense of deja vu: I have seen this case argued in many Labour party documents. Labour Members would not disagree with much of what the Minister said. However, Government practice is at odds with the practice of those who are doing excellent work around the country.
The hon. Gentleman was unfortunately unable to attend the recent meeting of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, when we took evidence from the Pre-School Learning Alliance. He rightly talks about the importance of partnership as distinct from the competitive approach developed by the Conservative party. Is he aware that the Pre-School Learning Alliance told the Select Committee that a number of its member schools had had to close because of the introduction of the voucher scheme? It also made it very clear that the competition element of the voucher scheme was damaging.
The hon. Gentleman touches on the core of what divides the House: whether education is a co-operative exercise or a competitive one. I accept that, internally, it is competitive in many respects, but the logical conclusion to draw from the fact that nursery schools have to compete against one another is that there will be losers as well as winners. Some of those losers will be the playgroups that come under the aegis of the pre-School Learning Alliance.
The Labour party has two other proposals on the under-fives. One is the establishment—or pioneering aspiration—of early excellence centres around the country that would propagate and disseminate information on best practice. As that is advocated by the Minister, I hope that, in the short time that the Government have left before the election, they will take it up more seriously; otherwise, we will have to put it into practice after the election.
Our other proposal, which was flagged by the Minister, is baseline testing as an early diagnostic tool. Labour authorities such as Birmingham and Nottingham have pioneered this sine qua non for effective measurement throughout a person's educational life.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the dissemination of good practice. Has he looked at the Internet aspect of the Department's improving schools programme? Will he give his view on the contribution that that makes to the dissemination of good practice across the country?
No, I have not, but that will be academic for many schools unless they are wired up to the information super-highway. The leader of the Labour party announced at our conference last year that that would be at the heart of our education proposals. That was reiterated this year.
What happens to our children at key stage 1 under the improving schools programme? One third of primary school pupils are in classes of more than 30, which is a 24 per cent. rise in the past five years. The Government refuse to acknowledge that large class sizes can hamper educational achievement. Many people, including many Conservative Members, choose the private sector precisely because smaller class sizes equal a better education.
Respected research by Tennessee Star is often quoted in the House. It carried out an excellent research programme that showed that class size has a direct effect on educational achievement. In October, an independent study commissioned by the National Association of Head Teachers recognised the importance of class size to educational achievement. Most frightening of all is that in 1996 there has been a 20 per cent. jump in the number of children in classes of more than 36 pupils.
Is not the hon. Gentleman twisting and distorting the facts to suit his own interests? Does he acknowledge that larger primary classes have classroom assistants? No teacher is required solely and alone to teach such a large number of children to read and write. Teachers are always supported by a classroom assistant.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is teaching methodology that counts? He should not just complain about class sizes. Good-quality teaching will always do well.
I could not disagree more with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). Not every class has a classroom assistant to pad out the adult-pupil ratio. I shall deal with that later. Teaching methodology has a place, but it is not the sole factor. I have taught senior classes of 48 people, but those client-pupils were well-motivated academically. I did not have a problem. We are talking about the most formative years of a child's life, when individual tuition is a prerequisite to the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills that will enable children fully to participate in education later on.
The hon. Gentleman misses out another important factor: the relationship between the school and the parents at home. Does he agree with me that it is vital that parents support their children when they are learning to read? Children's reading experience with their parents is equally important.
I shall come to that shortly. The reading recovery programme, which is probably the most successful scheme to date for those who have fallen behind, is predicated on the need for a partnership with parents. My understanding of that scheme is that, unless the parents are supportive, it does not work. But that is writ large for every child early on in school life.
Labour will address those areas of concern. We have said honestly and openly that we will abolish the assisted places scheme, which currently costs £118 million.
That figure is set to rise next year—if the Government have their way—to £141 million. We believe that the transfer of that money will enable us to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. I am sure that the Minister will tell us about the written answer that the Government gave. They said that the cost of our proposals was between £120 million and £250 million, which I find extremely interesting. It was the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) who tabled the question. The fact that there is such a lack of precision speaks volumes about the DFEE. I am sure that the Minister will enlighten us, but we have based our figures on independent research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me before he moves too far beyond his mention of the assisted places scheme. I have experience of schools where that scheme has worked, and is working, extremely well. Would he and his Front-Bench colleagues be prepared to visit one of the large successful schools that operate the assisted places scheme, so that he can see what would be at stake if the scheme were to disappear?
I have visited Wisbech grammar school, which last year received more money than any other school from the assisted places scheme. My old school, St. Edward's college in Liverpool, was one of the top three recipients of APS money. I could not but agree that the scheme is successful in putting money into schools. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, that was the original motivation behind it. It was designed to provide a subsidy for erstwhile direct grant schools that went into the independent sector. The arguments about the socio-economic background of the recipients of APS money were a post facto justification of what took place at the time.
My hon. Friend may be interested to know that I visited a rather well known former direct grant school of the type described by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson). As a Labour Member, I was asked about the assisted places scheme, and my reply was, "You do very well here. You have marvellous facilities and teachers and a site that serves the area. I would like all the boys in the borough"—it was a boys school—"to have similar opportunities. What do you say to that?" Should not the hon. Member for Norwich, North, who is a professional educator, share that view?
One of the great misunderstandings among Conservatives is that we want to drag people down. We do not. We want to drag everybody up. We want everybody to share the benefits of the excellent education that no doubt most of the youngsters on the assisted places scheme get. And we have a different set of priorities, because a reduction in class sizes, which will enable all our children to get on to the ladder of educational opportunity, is far more important than providing a subsidy to independent schools and giving an advantage to 33,000 or 34,000 youngsters.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is developing his argument on assisted places. It must be one of the few policies of new Labour that is unpopular with the public, because it has not been developed in response to whatever seems to be the mood of the moment. It is clear that the public support the assisted places scheme.
May I clarify something else? The hon. Gentleman asked why the range of costs was so wide, but on reflection he will realise why no one, including the NFER survey on which he relied, and which specifically excluded capital costs, can give exact costs. Until one checks school by school, one cannot possibly know whether there would be space within this or that school for another classroom, or whether three, four, or five children would be deprived of the opportunity to attend a school in the future. The whole idea is flawed, but I thought that I would give the hon. Gentleman a factual answer.
From the Minister's perspective, that may appear to be so, because it may be beyond the wit of the Government to achieve a better distribution of the 800,000 surplus places that already exist. One would hope that, where there is a commitment to state education and to the provision of smaller classes—where there is a will—there will be a way. And under Labour, there will be a will.
'The hon. Gentleman said that he would use the money saved by the abolition of the assisted places scheme to reduce class sizes. What figure did he use in calculating the cost of educating the pupils now on the assisted places scheme when they have to move into the maintained sector?
I shall come to that in a moment, but we have said repeatedly that the programme will be phased. It is not as if, overnight—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Obviously, we shall not prejudice the education of any child. We shall simply stop awarding fresh scholarships. That will have an impact. [Interruption.] The Conservatives say one thing and do another.
Let me give some figures. The hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) asked about costs. In 1993, the average expenditure per secondary school pupil in local education authority maintained schools in England was £2,250. The average fee charged per pupil under the assisted places scheme is £4,110. If that is not a subsidy to the private school and an advantage for the individual pupil, I do not know what is. Natural justice, if nothing else, demands that that no longer be allowed.
As for what one should do at key stage 1, throughout the early school years we shall reintroduce the reading recovery scheme I mentioned. We have set up literacy and numeracy task forces to work out how best to address the real needs of all our children and help them to acquire basic competence in maths and English.
Later, especially in primary school, there are major problems, and too many of our children fall behind in literacy and numeracy skills. Recent SATs results are alarming. Two fifths of 11-year-olds—40 per cent.—fail to meet the expected standards in maths and English tests at the end of key stage 2, and only three fifths of pupils achieve the appropriate standards in science.
Next time we consider an education Bill, we should ask ourselves what selection can possibly have to do with meeting the needs of those thousands upon thousands of children who have already fallen behind and will end up among the huge number of disaffected, alienated arid unemployed people that 17 years of Conservative government have created.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman is a touch hypocritical. He says that he is all for trying to improve standards and help children along, so how does he explain the appalling performance of Labour-controlled education authorities such as Hackney, Islington and Lambeth?
I shall touch on that later, because I am going through my speech stage by stage.
In his closing remarks, the Minister began by talking about standards, but he could not resist a side-swipe at local education authorities. LEAs have had many of their powers and responsibilities taken away. We accept that there is no constituency for a return to the status quo ante the Education Reform Act 1988 in terms of schools running schools. However, we do not accept the idea that there is no role for local education authorities—or, as I prefer to call them, the local education service—because they provide the day-to-day support and pressure that the Minister mentioned.
I have already acknowledged that we agree with what the Minister said about that, because his examples are taken from successful Labour authorities. The reason that the hon. Lady can point the finger at Labour authorities, even if she does so erroneously, is that almost all authorities are either Labour or Liberal Democrat. There are not many Conservative authorities, but if the hon. Lady wants to talk about the mistakes that those authorities have made, I have only to direct her attention not a million miles up the M1 to Milton Keynes. It is despicable that the new unitary authority there will have foisted on it a school that it does not want. Buckinghamshire county council is adopting a scorched earth policy.
There is also the question of grants. As my hon. Friend said, Labour-controlled education authorities do not get the same treatment as the few Tory authorities, such as Westminster, where we are now. If my local authority, or Halifax, or Nottinghamshire, which covers Manton school, could get the kind of grants that Tory-controlled Westminster council does, there would not be problems in the schools there. The Government feather the nests of Tory Westminster and Wandsworth. while the rest are left to do as they like. That is one reason why there are problems in our society.
I think that the electorate recognises that partiality has been shown between different authorities. There has been another type of partiality, too—the attitude towards locally managed as opposed to grant-maintained schools. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) has struck at the core of an important matter, so I shall tell the Minister about something that I had been reluctant to mention.
I met senior officers of the Funding Agency for Schools to discuss a school in my home city, St. Francis Xavier's college, and concerns relating to its financial procedures, and put down a list of 20 detailed questions. During the summer, when others were on holiday, we were in the House trying to get answers. I wrote to the Secretary of State two and a half weeks ago to express my alarm at one aspect in particular.
Obviously, public money is involved, but what concerns me is the fact that local authority schools are treated in one way, and grant-maintained schools in another. Of particular significance in this instance is the fact that a member of the Funding Agency for Schools is the head teacher of the school concerned. There is clearly a conflict of interests. I find no speed, urgency or consistency by the Government to investigate important matters in that school, as they would readily do in the case of a local authority school.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to correct the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who missed earlier parts of the debate, and point out to him that Hackney Downs school was receiving three times as much per pupil as any Westminster school, and that 45 children out of every 100 educated in Westminster schools are from other boroughs, virtually all of them Labour-controlled—Brent, Islington, Hackney and others? Those children include the son of the shadow Home Secretary, who cannot face education in Islington, where it is so awful.
The Minister said earlier that matters were more complex than merely funding, but funding is an important element in all schools and authorities. There are disparities and difficulties. We all wrestle with the difficulty of the area cost adjustment, as the Minister knows. People strongly resent that, as I am constantly reminded, and as he is, no doubt, when he travels to certain parts of the country.
The computation of standard spending assessments is immensely complex, and all sides are working to make it fairer. It comes down to the notion of winners and losers. We contend that some authorities have been winners because the odds have been stacked in their favour, while other authorities have been losers because the odds have been stacked against them, not just in funding, but with respect to their catchment area, the children they must teach, the history of local schools and other elements, which together form a complex matrix.
The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the way that money is spent in grant-maintained schools. Is he aware of the report issued two days ago by the National Audit Office, which expressed considerable concern about the financial arrangements in GM schools, and cited concerns about governing bodies? In one school, for example, the governors awarded £100,000 to the head teacher to spend in any way he liked, without any reference to them, and in another school the head teacher had new buildings built and staff appointed for a sixth form, without the governors being involved in the decision.
I cannot but agree with the hon. Gentleman. It seems that the school I mentioned might, with great facility, have switched funds that were liable for audit because they were public funds into those that are allegedly charitable funds. People draw on that money without receipts, and without following any of the usual financial procedures. That might be in order in terms of the law, but it would not be allowed to happen in a local authority school. Investigations would take place.
When I involve the appropriate authority, the FAS, I get no satisfaction. When I write to the Secretary of State, I do not even get the courtesy of an answer within two and a half weeks. I know that she is a busy lady: she must take the knives out of her back with increasing frequency, prepare herself for the disintegration of the Conservative party and wonder where she will end up in the broad spectrum that has developed in the party. Whether she is after the leadership or simply wants to maintain her job is open to question, but, notwithstanding the internal political intrigues in the Conservative party, she should respond to concerns about education that affect a great many children, teachers and parents.
Let me make three positive points on key stage 2, one of which the Minister said that we would take up. We have proposed summer schools for children who are failing, before they enter secondary education. Why not help them to overcome the barriers they face in literacy and numeracy, to give them a fair start in secondary education?
We want more homework to be part of the home-school contract. We want to develop clear guidelines for schools and parents on their responsibilities. We would encourage homework clubs. The Minister knows that children spend 12 times as long watching television as doing homework. Given Britain's performance in the world economic league, it is high time that we addressed the ethos, or lack of it, relating to homework.
Early diagnostic and remedial intervention is needed, beginning with the under-fives, to ensure that difficulties are dealt with and later problems pre-empted.
The crisis is most apparent at secondary level. We heard comments earlier about the Ridings school and the ghettoisation that arises from poverty, lack of aspiration and failure. I accept, as does the Minister, no doubt, that various factors compound the problems of the Ridings school: management, disaffected teaching, parents who do not meet their obligations—a heap of historical issues coming together.
The problems will become more widespread if the Conservatives try to implement the Prime Minister's commitment to a grammar school in every town. For every grammar school that is built, there will be at least one Ridings school. Matters will become worse and worse.
I wanted to make a positive contribution to the debate, and return to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the crisis in secondary education. Does he agree that primary education is the foundation? If we get that right, everything is easy, especially in secondary education. The real crisis is in the primary phase in the early years. We must focus on that if we want to succeed in education.
We need two things, and the next Labour Government will pursue a twin-track strategy. First, we must deal with the problems of the here and now, and all the manifestations of disaffection that we see in huge numbers of young people whom, frankly, the education system has failed in recent years. Secondly, we must take longer-term corrective measures to create an education system that deals with the twin needs for economic prosperity and social cohesion. Education is central to that.
We will put those building blocks in place. Meanwhile, emergency measures must be and are being taken. I hope that the Department, the inspectors and the LEA concerned will get together over the Ridings school—they may be doing so now—because instant partnership and instant action are needed in the present crisis.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, things are developing at the Ridings, and it would be inappropriate for me to speak about the inspection report. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that.
Sadly, Labour Members have a blind spot on selection by ability—not selection by aptitude, but selection by ability—if they assume that the creation or existence of grammar schools makes other schools poorer. The thrust of the debate is that every school, whatever its intake, can work to better those children. The hon. Gentleman is mistaken if he assumes that it is simply a matter of changing the nature of the intake. What matters is the attitude in dealing with the intake.
I agree that it is a matter not just of dealing with the intake, but of attitudes in every school. That is the nub of our case. We cannot afford to show preferential treatment to a minority who may be academically gifted. Naturally, they need support. Naturally, we want excellence for all our children, including those at the top of the attainment ladder. We must ensure, however, that the best is expected of every child and every school.
I noted the Minister using one of his favourite phrases—an oldie but goldie—about pressure and support. He was right: schools and teachers need pressure and support, but that must apply equally to every school.
The results of the long years of Conservative stewardship of the education system make disturbing reading. One in 12 youngsters leave school with no qualifications. The gap between the top and bottom 20 per cent. of GCSE results is described by a factor of 12. Matters are therefore worse than they were in the 1970s. There is a 10 per cent. gap between boys' and girls' performance—about which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) will have more to say later. As we enter the 21st century, supposedly the era of equality of opportunity, 47 per cent. of Oxbridge students still arrive from private schools. The Government's policies have resulted in massive divisions.
My party will continue to advocate a number of measures to improve the situation. We want clearer indicators used in what are known as league tables. That requires baseline assessment; it also requires weighting the results to take in other factors. We have long advocated fresh start proposals, which appear to be called for in the Ridings school. When a school is failing, we want it closed and a new institution opened on the site with a new management team, with a different ethos, and with all the support that can be mustered for staff, parents and governors.
We need to tackle the failure of boys in the system. White working-class boys and Afro-Caribbean boys are the main groups of academic failure, and hence the source of future problems in terms of offending behaviour.
We must begin to tackle the backlog of the £3.2 billion needed for the repair and maintenance of school buildings. We intend to do that through our form of public-private partnership, based on borrowing against revenue, not assets. I do not know whether Conservative Members realise that there are still 600 schools with outside toilets.
I am sure that the Minister would agree with many of my party's proposals. We want, for instance, to encourage leadership of the highest quality. We want to boost management and leadership skills with new national qualifications and with a national register of teachers qualified to become heads. Where there is failure of leadership. we shall streamline the system for replacing that failed leadership quickly.
We value teachers, which is why we propose the establishment of a general teaching council, to give full recognition to the professional status of teachers. We want to improve the quality of teacher training, and to create a new grade of advanced skills teacher, designed to recognise and reward the best teachers, whose place is at the blackboard using their skills for the betterment of our children.
We want to improve the quality and effectiveness of teacher appraisal, and to root out bad teaching wherever it occurs. Of course the vast majority—as much as 97 per cent.—of our teachers are good teachers, but we cannot afford any bad teaching in the system at all. As the Minister said, children only get one chance, and bad teaching cannot be allowed to frustrate that chance.
As for parents, we wish to reinforce home-school contracts, to build stronger partnerships between teachers and parents. The sad events of recent weeks have shown up the non-existence of such relationships.
We want to introduce clear homework guidelines to ensure consistency for every child in every school. We want every primary school to involve parents more in children's literacy and numeracy. As the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said, parents are a vital element in the early stages of a child's life.
I have quoted before the former director of education in Strathclyde, Frank Pignatelli, who, despite the objections of senior officers in the authority, proved what I have always believed to be true—that, even in the most deprived inner-city areas, parents want the best for their children. That is the most natural thing in the world. We must harness the aspirations of all such parents, we must surmount the jargon barriers, and we must involve these parents much more closely. That will have a huge impact on standards.
We want to reinforce governors in their role. We should like every LEA to establish independent governors' forums or associations, in which full consultation on policy developments and improving strategies can take place. I am pleased to note that the forthcoming education legislation shows that the Government have taken account of our views on LEAs. We expect them to undergo the same sort of inspections as schools. We expect LEAs to exceed certain quality thresholds and to provide a certain level of service to all schools.
We want to encourage business partnerships. On Monday this week, I visited Prudhoe community high school in Northumberland, where I saw an excellent synthesis of all these ideas, including a business partnership. The school enjoys technology status under the Government's initiative, and it offers modern apprenticeships. I saw there what a truly local community comprehensive high school can achieve. It is indeed a model of best practice.
We need to establish a standards and effectiveness unit, and the DFEE—[Interruption.] I am willing to be corrected, if the Minister wants to tell me that one has already been set up.
I stand corrected by the Minister, who tells me there already is one.
We have already agreed that national targets should be set and followed locally. We will need to review the many funding anomalies in the education system—a major task for any party in government, this, and I fear it will always remain so. We want to develop national guidelines for baseline testing. We would make it a clear duty for all schools to set improvement targets based on their previous best performance.
We would develop mentoring and encourage the presence of more adults in the classroom, so as to give disaffected young people role models. These are often lacking both in the home and at school, because of the declining numbers of male primary teachers. We think it essential that there be male role models in these schools—our proposals on the millennium volunteers might tie in with this. We could use young males as classroom assistants—subject, obviously, to proper checks on their suitability.
We want to encourage more extracurricular, after-school and summer activities, and to foster clear strategies to help struggling schools.
The Minister spoke of improvements in standards, and attacked local education authorities. I need only refer him to DFEE statistics for 1995 to demonstrate what these 17 years have done to young people's motivation to stay on in school.
The table on page 20 of the document compares the proportion of young people who remain in full-time education in this country with the figures of our overseas competitors, and tells us that only Turkey is worse off than the UK. Finland has 95 per cent. of l6-year-olds staying on in further education, Germany has 95 per cent., France has 92 per cent., the Netherlands have 97 per cent. and Sweden has 89 per cent. In the UK, the figure is 75 per cent.
For 17-year-olds, Finland has 86 per cent. in education, Germany has 93 per cent., France has 89 per cent., the Netherlands have 92 per cent. and Sweden has 87 per cent. The UK figure has fallen back to 57 per cent. For 18-year-olds, Finland has 82 per cent. in education, Germany has 84 per cent., France has 79 per cent., the Netherlands has 79 per cent. and Sweden has 61 per cent. The UK has a derisory 34 per cent.
Is that a measure of the success of our schools under the Government during the past 17 years? It is a terrible damnation of the Government and their achievements. More than 750,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25—who have spent virtually all their educational lives under this Conservative Government—are outside the job, education and training networks. Even the likes of the Financial Times now recognises that this is a major national tragedy and a terrible loss of resources that undermines our hopes not only of economic prosperity, but of social cohesion. It is time to say, "Enough is enough."
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, on being so refreshingly positive about education and on his commitment to raising standards in our schools to improve the life chances of our young people. I say that from the bottom of my heart, and I contrast his remarks with the negative whingeing approach of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), who denigrated every achievement of the Government. He ignored the fact that, today, one child in three goes on to further and higher education—in contrast with 1979, when the figure was one child in eight.
We have made enormous strides—our young people know that, industry knows that and employers know that. I welcome the improving schools programme, as it is never right to rest on one's laurels. We must keep pressing forward and try to tailor children's talents and aptitudes to where they will be of most benefit. I am impressed that the Government are now paying close attention to children entering the primary level by trying to assess their starting point to ensure that their individual tuition is tailored to maximise their abilities in the essential early years.
I am all for schools being held accountable for their achievements, and we have seen that working well in the independent sector. I regard competition as healthy. I fear that Labour's code word of "co-operation" is a way of masking difficulties, rather than bringing the facts of how schools perform out into the open so that they can be compared with others as they look to build on best practice.
It was disappointing that the hon. Member for Walton spent a great deal of his speech running down the immensely succesful programmes introduced by the Government, including grant-maintained schools—the very schools that are giving opportunities to the children of Opposition Front Benchers. The Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield, (Mrs. Blair) had no doubts about deserting a sinking ship and running to a grant-maintained school to get the most benefit for his children.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the grant-maintained policy has been so succesful that, in the past 12 months, only one half of 1 per cent. of all eligible schools have balloted for grant-maintained status? Secondly, what evidence does she have of the success of grant-maintained schools?
I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman about the success of grant-maintained schools. In my constituency, grant-maintained schools have fought like the devil to achieve that status despite the resistance of local Liberal Democrat councillors, who wanted to deny children the opportunity of being in a school with the right to manage its own affairs. As a result of becoming grant-maintained, the schools have improved their academic standards and achieved better results. In addition, the schools are over-subscribed. Let us have no more cant from the Liberal Democrats, who are trying to run down grant-maintained schools. Those schools are here to stay, as far as we are concerned.
New Labour says that it is all for improving standards, but it wriggles on the hook when challenged about the Labour party's performance in the local education authorities that it controls. It is not good enough for Labour to say, "Don't blame us. We are only reflecting national policy." That is not the case. The Government have tried hard to devolve responsibility to the lowest possible level, and LEAs are responsible for getting it right. Nine out of 10 of the bottom LEAs in the country are Labour-controlled, and that is a disgrace.
The hon. Lady might like to talk to the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) about his local authority, which—although hardly a hotbed of socialism—has consistently argued that it has been disadvantaged by the Government's funding policies. They are not my words, but those of the county council. That area is not a Labour hotbed—I do not think that we have a Labour Member of Parliament from that area.
The problem is that my hon. Friend's borough is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, and that problem is reflected across the country. In my constituency, the local authority is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, who are trying to squeeze our schools and attempting to rub out the assisted places scheme. It is a disgrace to try to deny opportunities to others by levelling down.
It is depressing to hear Labour say that it wants to upgrade education. We should look at its track record before 1979. At that time, Labour cut spending on education by £1.6 billion, and teachers' pay lagged way behind that of their peer group. This Government have increased teachers' pay fivefold, so let us have no more cant from Labour on this matter.
I wish to refer to the positive agenda of the Government, and congratulate them on the attention that they are giving to discipline in schools. Without discipline, children will not have a chance to learn. Two weeks ago, I took part in a Central television programme on parenting. I went up to Nottingham and sat in a studio with parents and children from the Ridings school.
It was an unhappy experience, because I saw angry parents pitted against teachers, and sullen, truculent arid aggressive children. The children were poor in their articulation, and had pale, thin faces. The youthful innocence that should have been theirs was gone. It told a sorry tale of a breakdown in personal discipline and a total lack of even the remotest understanding of a moral code. Discipline has to be instilled into their lives if we are to give those young people a decent chance in life. It is impossible for any one of them to settle down and work calmly and effectively when his or her life is in turmoil.
The behaviour at the Ridings school has shocked us all. It is a condensed nightmare; but, although shades of that school's experience are present in other schools, it is mercifully rare to find such disorder all in one place.
The description given by the hon. Lady is sad and almost certainly accurate, but does she agree that the remedy lies primarily in co-operation—a word that she dismissed summarily a few minutes ago—and not in imposed and arbitrary discipline or competition?
The hon. Gentleman is side-stepping the issue. School discipline comes from a variety of sources. School leadership is absolutely essential. I myself saw how a non-selective school in Sutton was transformed from a bin school into a tremendously successful one. Before the current headmaster took over, discipline had so broken down that a boy was found riding a motorbike through the school's corridors. Today, that school, with firm leadership, has a powerful and vigorous sixth form and children are achieving more than they had ever believed possible. That is because the headmaster believed in them and believed that the principle of discipline had to be enshrined in their school.
The headmaster takes a no-nonsense approach, and success has been achieved through being tough on discipline. He does not hesitate before sending home an unruly pupil—one who is rude, offensive or aggressive—and that child is not allowed back into school until he has said that he will come to the headmaster's office, properly dressed in school uniform, with his parents beside him, and then apologise.
Imposing fair discipline is hard work—none of us would deny that. The head teacher in all cases must be backed by parents. The difficulty at the Ridings school is that the parents were aggressive and blamed teachers instead of examining what had gone wrong. Parents felt deeply mortified if fault was found with their child. We all know that children are sometimes naughty and that they can misbehave, but a child who is undermining a school is not helped by its parents insisting, "My Johnny is perfectly well behaved." The child then has no fear of retribution, either at home or at school. In the end, it is up to a school's leaders to be clear about where they stand on behaviour.
It is significant that the neighbouring school to the Ridings—a Catholic school, only one mile away, which has a similar catchment area—has had a vastly different experience. One boy at that school, when asked whether the moral decline had affected his school colleagues, replied:
Has it, heck! If you go into the dining room with trainers on, you're sent home.
That is the key—discipline begins at home. It must be admitted that some children have little chance—those who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds, hurtling between a changing scene of partners and step-parents, have an unstable base to build on.
Against those disadvantages, an essential start is home-school agreements that give parents a clear understanding of their responsibilities and show how they can support the school. There is a creeping tendency among some parents to talk more about their rights than about their responsibilities—to complain rather than to support the school.
Head teachers need more than such agreements, however—they need to enforce effective discipline when a small minority breaks ranks. Bad behaviour does not affect only the individual child, but the entire peer group. At present the means available to head teachers are somewhat limited. An imaginative head teacher will devise a series of disciplinary measures in graduated steps, such as isolation at break or at lunch time—young people hate to be isolated from their peer group—missing school treats and outings, and other punishments. That will leave teachers with a final sanction, before exclusion, of after-school detention.
Head teachers tell me, however, that detention is not as effective as it might be, because, until now, a head teacher has had to write to the child's parents giving them 24 hours written warning of detention. The sting of the punishment, which should be immediate, is thus delayed to the point where it is no longer effective. I therefore welcome the provision in the forthcoming Education Bill to permit head teachers to detain pupils without advance parental consent. That power is really obtained in principle when parents sign their home-school agreement.
My second point is that discipline is meaningless unless it is backed by a moral code. I congratulate Frances Lawrence on her brave stand to ban violence and promote civic values. She deserves our whole-hearted support in her campaign for society to remain civilised. Her message fell on fertile ground and stimulated a vigorous debate. It appears that the silent majority that she represents has had enough and is fighting back.
Of the many laudable aims that Mrs. Lawrence proposed, the one that resonates most with me is her plea that
Governments must no longer be neutral on the family.
In her manifesto, which was published in The Times, she said:
One of the most effective crime prevention measures is, surely, action to protect and encourage family life.
She recognises that stable families provide the loving support, backed by gentle authority and natural affection, that encourages children to treat others with interest and respect. She added:
Deprived of the simple warmth of family life, however, children, for self preservation, may have to seek refuge in the harsh, unfamiliar and tenuous camaraderie of the streets. Gangs, like those of the boy who murdered my husband, attract the unloved young and provide inane and ugly occupation.
Mrs. Lawrence's warning should be taken very seriously—it came from her heart, not from a political pundit trying to score points.
That is why I take seriously the School Curriculum Assessment Authority consultation document on values which was published only this week. I take heart from the fact that it is a consultation document and that there is time to amend it, which is just as well. I am disturbed by the lack of attention paid in the document to the family, which is the foundation of our society.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as I missed the earlier part of her speech. Is she as disturbed as I am by the fact that the word "marriage" is not mentioned in the document?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was about to address that point. In fact, five of the people who were involved in the consultation exercise, led by Mr. Guy Hordern, declared their great dismay at the fact that marriage had not been mentioned. I support their call that
children should be nurtured and developed within a stable, moral and loving home environment with preferably both mother and father present in a happy marriage relationship.
When reading the SCAA document I felt that it was so vague as almost to neutralise morality. It is as if the SCAA is terrified of grasping the matter—as if the issue is too hot to handle and the SCAA has run away from the possibility of being burnt.
Virtue has to be taught and the roots begin at home. I believe it was somewhat cowardly of the consultation document to back off and not mention marriage because consensus could not be achieved. It was feared that because so many children in a classroom might come from broken homes, it would somehow be insensitive to draw attention to the successful, structured and traditional family.
However, I agree with Mr. Hordern that we must regard marriage as an ideal; to do otherwise is a fundamental betrayal of the next generation. I support him in his desire not to put down single parents or exclude them but to expose sensitively and realistically the great shortcomings of bringing up children in a single-parent household, a situation made even more difficult if the parent has never been married or is constantly changing partners.
We have to grasp the nettle. The revival of the family, meaning two heterosexual parents and the institution of marriage, should be the central theme running through policies for social recovery. Parents have the duty of stewardship over their children, and to duck that duty is to fail in our responsibilities.
For all the reasons that I have outlined, we should be bold and brave in promoting the institution of marriage. Young people who do not have the good fortune to enjoy a stable family life are under no illusions about their own circumstances, so it is up to us to give them firm and clear moral frameworks. We have to deter them from starting another disastrous cycle of their own. This country has paid a high price—of all European countries, we have the largest number of children born outside marriage.
The traditional family provides the moral framework that no school curriculum can provide. Therefore, to omit marriage from the consultation document is to deny the next generation the rights that it fully deserves and which it is entitled to enjoy. Countering the influence of feckless parents is one of the things that schools used to do with unblushing confidence. That was before training colleges persuaded teachers to stop inflicting bourgeois values on working class children. I believe that, with tact, it is possible to convey a message that might persuade some children not to make the mistakes that their parents made, but that can be done only if we do not duck the difficult issues—we have to face them.
Getting the consultation document right and promoting family values will be a first step in giving children the firm basis and stable home that they need to be able to concentrate on school work and to do justice to themselves and to society.
I agree with many of the descriptions given by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and her comments on some of the omissions from the consultation document, but my moral background—which I believe I share to some extent with her—leads me to almost precisely the opposite conclusions in terms of national education policy and many other matters relating to the life of our nation. I shall expand on the differences between us at the end of my speech.
I must apologise to the House. This time yesterday and, indeed, until late in the evening, I was intending to stay until the end of this debate, but I have had a rather urgent message on a domestic matter, which means that I shall not be able to hear the reply to it.
I begin with a quotation of a retiring teacher:
I come to the problems facing secondary schools in urban areas, particularly those which do not have the first choice of pupils or staff. There are indications that the difficulties which are caused by socially deprived, unhappy and maladjusted pupils are on the increase. One of the most frustrating and tragic aspects of the job which I am in the process of relinquishing is represented by the difficulties experienced by teachers through being faced by unhappy, sullen and inarticulate young people and the fact that, in the present structure, many teachers are not able to produce an educational response suited to their deepest needs.
The result is that a significant number of adolescents are leaving school today inadequately prepared for learning for themselves, which is one of the objects of the exercise. Indeed, it is the main purpose of it. They are leaving with bitterness and with a grudge against adult society.
In some schools the emotional strain on teachers is considerable. Even the most sympathetic and experienced of them are liable to be abused, sworn at or even physically attacked. It is not surprising, therefore, that even some of those who are educationally committed are leaving the profession.
He had said earlier:
I do not believe that even the most enlightened education authorities, let alone the Department, have a realistic appreciation of the real needs and difficulties involved."—[Official Report, 8 July 1970; Vol. 803, c. 735.]
Was that said last week, or about the causes célèbres mentioned by the Minister? No, it is from a speech made in the House 26 years ago. For reasons that I shall come to, I think that the situation has got even worse.
The situation has got worse because, even now, not even the most enlightened education authorities—we must remember that they have been deprived of many of their powers—let alone the Department for Education and Employment, understand the fundamentals of learning in a classroom. If we do not start with the classroom, ensure the provision of resources and good leadership and encourage co-operation—I stress the word co-operation for the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam—the learning process does not get off the ground.
I once heard a wise headmaster, a man who had fought in the trenches in the 1914–18 war, say that the object of the educational process was to enable individuals not only to learn how to live wisely—which I think was Archbishop Temple's definition of education—but to become literate, numerate, manipulate and sociate. The final one is often left out, which has a bearing on what the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam suggested.
That headmaster said that none of those objectives, which I suggest are far more important than any other measurable attainment at a given age, can be achieved without a certain motivation, and that motivation cannot be achieved without a prospect of success. Success having been achieved, greater success is built on it. I would expect most teachers and headmasters who aspire to do a professional job broadly to agree with that view, but we do not often hear about it. Instead, we hear about resources, money and legislation that must be organised and directed to those very ends. That is the responsibility of the House and locally elected representatives.
For the first time in a long while, there is debate in the newspapers about the principles on which we build our society and which we wish to offer our young people. Acres of space are devoted to the matter and to two or three causes célèbres, which I shall not speak about in detail but which are symptoms of something going wrong, but I understand that even some important education bodies are not aware of our debate today.
How many teachers will be able to read what has been said? Is there a radio channel for schools from which this debate can be recorded? What is the vague programme that the Minister mentioned? I have heard talk of the improving schools programme, but the London county council and County hall had a whole department to deal with the professional improvement of teachers. I used to listen to some of its lectures and even gave some. It is the job of local schools, local education authorities, institutes of education and the profession to improve schools. Of course the Government can get a bit of kudos by publishing papers on the subject, but I suspect—I hope that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam agrees—that the state per se, embodied in the Department for Education and Employment, is not in that game. It should be a matter for LEAs, the professional bodies and academics.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the purpose of today's debate is to provide a launch pad for the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority document, which was torpedoed by the Secretary of State earlier in the week. That is why so many people do not know about it. The document no longer serves the propagandist purpose of a Government who now dedicate everything to their campaign to retain office at the general election.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for a possible explanation. It begins to fit, and it may well be right.
I expect—there has not been much mention of this except from the Minister, although I make no complaint about that—that the Government have a set of remedies. On Wednesday, they published a Bill—80 pages of education legislation. The Minister referred to it en passant. The Bill has not featured much in the newsprint yet because it is a bit technical. It implements most of the ideas from the document "Self-Government for Schools".
The hon. Member says, "Hear, hear," but the Bill extends a policy that the Government have been pursuing for the past five or six years. The policy that has been advanced for the administration of schools, their financing and the assistance of teachers in the classroom and talented heads has been the opposite of what is required to achieve the educational objectives I saw Conservative Members nodding about a while ago.
On choice, diversity and specialisation, paragraph 4 of the White Paper, Cm 3315, says:
Since 1979 one of the Government's main objectives has been to give parents more choice in deciding the education they want for their children, and to promote more diversity among schools as a means of broadening that choice.
That is not my understanding of what parents want. They want to be able to rely on a school relatively close to where they live to provide a high standard of professional service from dedicated public servants that meets the needs of their child. They want sufficient choice within the educational offering at that school to allow their child's needs to be met.
I agree that there may be a need for a few specialist schools such as the Yehudi Menuhin school for highly talented children with certain aptitudes. Special schools may also be required for those who physically and perhaps intellectually have special needs, but the bulk of children are now at least thinking about taking a GCSE in four or five subjects. Surely, if there is to be proper choice, the heads and teachers, particularly in schools teaching 11 to 16-year-olds—the crucial years—should have the opportunity to make the whole educational offering available and match it to the needs of each pupil. [Interpeption.]
The hon. Member for Castle Point dissents. I am happy to give way if he does not think reasonable the proposition that choice should be provided between schools that offer the same standard, particularly in rural areas with a county town or where pupils go to a school in a large village or town. I should like him to rise if he disagrees with that. Surely that is what all parents need. They need a choice—a limited choice perhaps—between a number of schools, each of which can provide that educational offering. I challenge any Conservative Member to disagree with that as an ideal.
Can the hon. Gentleman help me with a dilemma? As he rightly points out, the Government are promoting the idea of parental choice, but does not the extension of selection deny parental choice? Under a selective system, the school selects the child; the parent does not choose the school.
Indeed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am hastening on, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Any denial of the principle that I have enunciated results in the situation that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) outlines. The variety and skill of education to a high standard which we want for all our children can be offered in a school which has—if I dare use the term—a comprehensive, with a small "c", offering. That is why that unfortunate word was used when the concept was introduced. Such schools should simply have been called high schools. That is the history of the dilemma. I have proved my point thus far, I think.
Furthermore, a wise head and a wise staff at any school will consider not only the needs of pupils who clearly need something extra—those who are either scholastically behind or non-sociate, to use the phrases that I used earlier—but will assess the needs of all pupils, all the time, every year, and will assemble the right response within the organisation that the school permits. That is another educational principle which I am sure the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and others who have had experience of teaching—I see that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) is not here—cannot deny.
Alas, the principles that I have enunciated are not being adhered to in Newham. In Newham, we have a great need to meet the needs not only of all pupils in all our secondary schools but of children with special needs which the House, the education authorities and even the Minister say must be made clear in a statement. It is important to bring such pupils up to a level at which they can begin to learn for themselves, and learn to walk before they can run. Once those needs have been stated, the resources have to be made available to meet them. Hence we have the question of special needs, about which I intervened earlier.
My understanding from my constituency experience is that there is a great need for special needs provision. We have in Newham the Tunmarsh centre. A few months ago, I was summoned by the head of the centre, which sends out remedial teachers to the schools in the borough. It also has a centre to which pupils can come for extra help. It is equipped with many facilities including devices, books and visual aids.
The head said, "Mr. Spearing, we are in danger. Are we going to be able to continue? Will I be able to recruit staff? It looks as if we are going to have to cut down." I asked why. She said, "We get our money from the LEA and we have been told that there is some difficulty with it." There is some formula involving 85 or 95 per cent. It is all a bit obscure. Some money comes from the Department—15 or 16 per cent. The centre has to sell its services to each school in turn.
While the centre receives money from the LEA, the schools are very glad for it to help them out, but in future the governors of each school will have to examine their spending and decide whether to purchase what the centre provides. The head said that many of the schools would think that they could do the job better because they could choose how to spend their money. She said that the centre's service to the community and the borough was at risk. I found out from various conversations with officers of the much maligned education authority that they thought that what the head said was true, but they had no choice about the matter because the Government were changing the scheme of distribution of resources. There is talk about that now.
The common-sense thing to do might be to aggregate in any one LEA the special needs of pupils, roughly assess the cost of meeting them and take that figure out of the figure which the Government require the local authority to distribute to local management of schools. I suggest that we need urgently to look at that. If we do not, the people who need a proper educational response will continue to be the unfortunate people whom the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam graphically described a few moments ago.
The hon. Lady also mentioned head teachers. The difference that a head can make is well known. The hon. Lady had an example. Indeed, the head teacher in the sad instance she cited is trying to do just that—make a difference. He has a terrible task. A head teacher will develop staff and school over five or 10 years before there is the lift-off in morale and motivation, like an aeroplane taking off, which is the heart of a good school.
What has happened to school heads in the past few years? I am sure that the National Association of Head Teachers and the Secondary Heads Association could describe to the Minister what has happened. Before the changes of the past 10 years, head teachers were responsible for the educational response; they got resources from the local education authority and did not have to worry too much about it. They now have 50 to 100 per cent. more functions: they have to be lawyers—much of the law in the Bill will apply directly to them, because each school is now its own quango—and they have to advise governors on a range of issues that used to be outside their responsibility, such as school buildings, repairs and organising money. The Minister cannot deny that running a school has become a semi-business.
The time that a head teacher has to devote to education qua education has been severely restricted, especially with the necessity for public relations. There was always an element of selling one's school—that is human nature—but now heads are forced into it. There was even a revolt among governors and staff of the private, self-contained quango of Cheltenham college.
It is a self-contained quango, just like many so-called maintained schools. They are in competitive tables, like football league tables. Cheltenham college is sound and well looked after, as Conservative Members will appreciate, but the head was in danger of being sacked because it had gone down about 2 per cent. in the tables—at least, that is what I read in the newspapers; it may not be accurate. Every school head and all staff have to contend with such problems.
What are the problems that heads face now? They are dealing not only with education and with the centralities, but with an infusion of business criteria, which is all right for people making or repairing motor cars but not for people coping with pupils and their activities. I challenge the Minister about standards: educational achievement can be assessed by way of some examination on some curriculum, which can vary from year to year, but there is more to it than that.
The Minister mentioned his close connection with somebody connected with education. I have had 13 years' experience in the classroom, and I calculate that that means 13,000 lessons—a staggering figure. The petrol that fuels education is as I have described, and all the changes have diminished the ability to teach. Heads are faced with the prospect of having to consider annually whether to opt for grant-maintained status and with the prospect of sponsor governors. My impression—the Minister may wish to correct it—is that sponsor governors are at present associated only with GM schools, and that their function is to bring in financial or other resources.
The key role of sponsor governors is in the development of specialist colleges, especially the technology colleges, which could be either grant-maintained or under a local education authority.
That is at least half an answer. The idea of having specialist schools for under-16s in the secondary range, rather than making provision available centrally, is controversial, because that is not the universal provision for 11 to 16-year-olds that people generally consider necessary. Schools will have to decide whether to go technical in order to secure backing from some local firm to supplement resources that are restricted under local management of schools.
What about teacher recruitment and the competitive nature of what might be called the education business? What about school buildings? My first teaching job was in a new school. I thought it would have a wonderful geography department. In fact, there were two rooms rather than the four that were needed and each teacher had a locker only the size of the lockers that were installed for us here in 1850. I asked why that had happened in a newly built school, and was told that it was because of the Horsbrugh building cuts. Even then the building regulations were inadequate; some schools, unlike Eton, Cheltenham and such, did not have enough money to provide a place where pupils could eat properly together and learn the social habits in which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is so interested.
Now that the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Act 1996 has done away with the regulations, there are no building regulations other than those concerned with health and safety matters such as fire exits and the number of lavatory pans. The safeguard of adequate premises has disappeared. That is another, headache for teachers.
What about playing fields? They have been sold off. We are told that there is a ratio, but that was disproved in the early 1980s. We were told that, as the population was declining, we could sell off the playing fields. When we asked what would happen if the population went up—which has now happened—we were told that that would be hard luck. The Prime Minister may talk about academies of sport, but in sport the width of the base is what counts. Sport in schools can be important for morale and for the relationship between staff and pupils, as can out-of-school activities, which declined drastically after the late Sir Keith Joseph introduced various constraints and antagonised the teaching profession—something that is happening more and more.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the decline of school sports, societies and outdoor activities as a result of measures introduced by the Government has led to the undermining of the moral education that the Government suddenly find so lacking in schools?
The challenge of moral education, as can be seen from certain newspapers and programmes, is greater than ever, but the means whereby teachers can offer something superior have been restricted. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam should realise that more than discipline is required; children will not learn without motivation and cannot be taught unless they want to learn. They might want to learn if there is a prospect of some money—employment is a great motivator—but there is not much of that for young people in certain places, including those in the Ridings, as the hon. Lady said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) is absolutely right: human relationships in the classroom, on the playing field and in out-of-school activities such as dramatics and hobbies, are fundamental to the school as a society. A wise headmaster once said that a secondary school was a society of children, young adults and adults. All that has been prejudiced by the Government's policies and attitude to the teaching profession.
The Bill will allow GM schools to apply to increase their numbers by 50 per cent. Can the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam tell me what would happen to other schools in her area or in any other if a GM school decided to take advantage of that? What happened to the criss-crossing of boundaries, with people coming in by train? What happens if a school that serves one area suddenly has to cater for a much larger one, purely through competition and places in the league tables? The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam nods, but I suggest that that is not good for the school itself.
A wise education administrator, or anyone—even R. A. Butler—would say that a professional head and governors should not take decisions about their school without considering the impact on the education system as a whole. That is a good principle, but the Government do not understand it. The so-called grant-maintained experiment will increase the problem, but there is more to it than that.
The Bill raises the suspicion that the Funding Agency for Schools will displace local education authorities. That is written clearly in what the Government are doing. The FAS is to be given opportunities to offer advice and to start up schools. The FAS grant system and the grant-maintained school system is being used to undermine and change the structure set up by Mr. Butler.
The hon. Gentleman is in full flood, but before he gets too carried away I remind him that the White Paper spelled out significant roles for local education authorities. It is already possible for LEAs and the FAS to come to different conclusions about proposals. In at least once instance, the Government accepted the LEA's recommendation rather than that of the FAS.
That may be, but the Government still imply that LEAs have a role that they do not have. How often, in respect of causes célèbres, we hear the Secretary of State tripping off the phrase, "Oh, that is for education authorities." The public believe that local education authorities are authorities, but they no longer are. Someone should introduce a private Bill to change their name—local authority scapegoats would be more accurate.
The Minister does not deny that the FAS will have the power to create new schools. The school plan of the Butler Act has disappeared. The Government's education policies do not even match up to the education policies of enlightened Conservatism. They follow a competitive compulsion because they believe that all competition is good.
I am nearing the end of my speech. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I understand the impatience of hon. Members—we all feel it when we wish to speak—but I shall read Hansard with great care to find whether they have refuted any of my points. The London Diocesan Board for Schools issued a response to the White Paper, though there was precious little time to respond to it. The board said:
The changes in admission arrangements in recent years have increased the stress and pain experienced by parents and children when choosing a school. We have considerable evidence of this. We are unaware of any demand for increased selection from either parents or educationalists. Only 14 GM schools and 2 county schools have become partially selective beyond 10 per cent. The continual changes to statutory requirements relating to admissions makes it difficult for parents to keep up to date with procedures, resulting in frustration and misunderstandings.
On LEAs, paragraph 6 states:
We agree with the seven main functions which LEAs undertake as listed in this paragraph. We work with 18 different LEAs and experience the wide range of support for schools provided by them. Where an LEA has pruned back its support to the minimum, the negative results for schools are clear to see. We are disappointed to see how the White Paper weakens the position of LEAs in some areas and urge the government to strengthen the role of LEAs.
Education cannot he run like a regiment, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam seems to think, although the tradition of private schools suggests that it can be up to a point. The problem is more fundamental and subtle. Unless the Government understand the dedication of teachers, the big challenge that teachers face will be made even more difficult by the false remedies that the Government are peddling in the White Paper and the Bill that was published last week.
Education is the most important political subject today. It is the key by which the individual succeeds, and the key to success of our great nation. It is the key to the door of opportunity for each individual. I am delighted that the Government have decided to debate education this morning. I am only sad that, in the first 90 minutes of the debate, only two Opposition Back-Bench Members were present, while there were seven Conservatives. That speaks volumes.
I am always delighted to follow the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). He speaks well and I enjoy hearing him, because he speaks with wonderful common sense. I agreed with much of what he said, but I disagreed with many of his conclusions, and especially with his aversion to selection.
I am against mixed ability teaching, which I think has failed, and I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's dislike of choice and diversity and of many of the successful Government policies that are turning education around. He invited me to intervene on him on a point when he saw that I was dissenting. I was dissenting from his assertion that the crucial years of education are 11 to 16. Hansard will show that that is what he said. I believe that the foundation years—the primary years—are the crucial years. If we get them right, everything else is more simple.
I will clarify what I said. I do not think that everything else afterwards is simple, because adolescence is not simple. The hon. Gentleman is right about the base, but what happens in a single primary school classroom happens in a secondary school in the whole school. We can at least agree that that is a different sort of education organisation.
We can agree on that. Education is the key to success. The key to success in education is primary education, and the key to success in primary education is reading. It is a triple lock similar to that which the Government have provided for the single currency.
To drive up standards in schools, we must improve discipline, promote diversity, extend choice for parents and raise standards. I welcome the Government's flagship Bill in the Gracious Speech, because it will do those three things.
Discipline is the foundation; without discipline there can be no education. Without discipline, we will not see the enjoyment and love of learning on the faces of rising-fives when they arrive at school. How sad it is to see some of them quickly losing the enthusiasm and motivation of which the hon. Member for Newham, South spoke so eloquently. Without discipline, children will not achieve the essential skills of reading and numeracy that are the basis for all other subjects.
The Bill is welcome because it introduces long overdue measures to improve discipline and behaviour. It will give schools greater power to detain without the parent's consent; to exclude pupils for up to 45 days in any one year; and to refuse access to pupils whose parents refuse to sign a home-school agreement. Such an agreement, which reinforces parental responsibilities, is therefore essential, and it is a good initiative.
The Bill places a duty on schools to have a defined policy on discipline. It will set down expected standards of behaviour, the means of encouraging good behaviour, and the controls and sanctions that will be enforced when standards fall short.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Opposition are fascinated by the current little diversion in the Conservative party about caning. I wonder whether he can answer the same question that I put to the Minister earlier. Does he agree with the Prime Minister about caning, does he agree with the Secretary of State and, indeed, the Under-Secretary, or will he equivocate as the party chairman did on television last night? Where does the hon. Gentleman stand?
The hon. Gentleman will not draw me down that road—he must think that I am wet behind the ears. It certainly is a topical issue, given what has happened at the Ridings school, and I think that the Government's package of measures on discipline have caught the mood of the country. We must, however, keep the two school closures in proportion. There have always been difficult children and schools that are better than others. I should like to stress, however, that there have always been dedicated, excellent teachers who do a wonderful job, although I accept that some may need help and extra training and guidance.
The Opposition say that there are 15,000 bad teachers, and that they should be dumped. I disagree—I do not think there are anything like 15,000 bad teachers, and I certainly do not think that those teachers should be dumped. They should be offered mid-career guidance, training and every opportunity to improve.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has clarified that, because I have heard the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the leader of the Labour party, quote that figure of 15,000 bad teachers. I cannot believe that that is true.
There has been a lot of media hype about discipline in schools—there must be little other news around. Children will be children, and they indulge in copycat behaviour. They want to get their faces in front of the television camera as they jump up and down outside their school playground. I hope that the media will carefully consider their treatment of the education system. I hope that they will back off from the schools in question, to allow matters to settle down. They must accept that they have a great responsibility in that respect.
The Government have recognised that schools' self-improvement is most important. On 28 September, the Secretary of State announced a measure to support that policy, which I welcome. The Government will introduce legislation to require schools to set and publish annually their own targets for pupils' performance, and to publish pupils' performance in national curriculum assessments and public examinations in core subjects. I welcome that.
The two years of virtual full participation in the national curriculum tests and assessments have given us a sound base on which to measure pupil performance. I recall that the Labour party was opposed to such tests, but I doubt that it is now. Schools will be able to compare themselves against achievement nationally as well as locally. Such comparisons will help schools to recognise what they have to do to ensure that good practice is spread as widely as possible, and to ensure that their standard of performance represents the best possible.
I welcome the introduction of a nationwide baseline assessment in September next year. That assessment will be conducted on young children soon after they first enter school, and it will provide a framework to gauge pupils' progress as they move through the school. I know that the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), who is present, and who sat on the Education Select Committee with me in previous years, also welcomes that value-added component, which is much more valuable than straight raw test results.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) spoke at great length about primary class sizes. Does he agree that, the greater the range of ability in any one class, the more difficult it is to teach a large class? Will he therefore apologise for Labour's disastrous policy of mixed ability teaching methods and for destroying the means of selection, and even streaming? I am glad to see that I am tempting the hon. Gentleman to respond.
I am happy to rise to the challenge, and shall take the hon. Gentleman's last point first. On the subject of the damnation of Labour policy on selection—what are the hon. Gentleman's views on Lady Thatcher's attitude towards selective grammar schools when she was Secretary of State for Education?
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman understands that there are many different approaches to the methodology of teaching in terms of mixed ability teaching and its benefits for low achievers. I accept what he says about many teachers finding it easier to teach pupils of one ability group—I have experience of that, and I said so in my speech; but that is not necessarily best for the children themselves.
I do not accept the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's point on selection. There is selection in schools in Dorset, Poole, Bournemouth and, where I now live, near Southend—and many of my constituents take advantage of it. In those areas, selection has given children from working-class backgrounds a great opportunity to do much better. In addition, non-selective schools also achieve much higher results. Everyone involved in education in south-east Essex, including my constituents in Castle Point, benefit from those selective schools. Selective schools do not usually mean that other schools around them are failed or sink schools.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in Essex, the county that we both represent, we have some of the finest grammar schools in the country? Essex county council, under Liberal and Labour control, has waged a campaign of unremitting hostility against those schools, and is now trying to withdraw free school transport from them. Is that not the best demonstration of the Labour party's attitude to selective education?
Absolutely—the Labour party in Essex has done what the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has just castigated the Government for doing: it has tried to sell a school field in my constituency. I have been fighting the Labour council tooth and nail; I have taken the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has overturned the council's decision and forced it to rethink. The Labour council is taking that action against the Government's advice and against what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wanted.
I have a simple question for the hon. Gentleman. What does he think of the response to the Government on selection by the Association of Grant Maintained and Aided Schools? There are many such schools in Essex that do not want selection. I have seen the phenomenon at first hand: there is a small number of highly selective schools in Essex, but I have met the secondary heads there, and the vast majority of them do not want selection.
The parents responsible for their children know best—they know better than the bureaucrats. That is why I am delighted that my grant-maintained schools—King John's school, Deans school and Appleton school—last week announced that they were all selecting 15 per cent. of out-of-catchment children. This week, they vote for selection; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to record my congratulations to those schools.
We need more grant-maintained schools in the system. Immediately after the election, I want the Government to come forward with a way to promote more grant-maintained schools, and to stop the local education authorities frustrating parents. We must look at the future value and role of LEAs. That is one of the keys to the difficulty that has been experienced in education in this country over three or four decades.
I am delighted that the Government propose to extend choice and diversity, because they are virtues in their own right: they drive up standards in schools. When a school goes grant-maintained or has a new sixth form, as has happened in my constituency, it is not just that school that benefits, but all schools, as they have to consider the quality of their teaching, how effectively they are delivering it and what relevance it has. Standards rise throughout the system—in the schools that become grant-maintained, in those that get a sixth form and in all the other schools surrounding them. Moreover, a sixth form benefits not only the 16 to 18-year-old students, but the whole school, because it pulls up standards. I therefore welcome the Government's recent decision to provide more sixth forms and specialist schools, and more selection.
Where should those specialist schools be? Not surprisingly, I want them in my constituency, as it is a centre of excellence in education. Schools in my constituency import hundreds of pupils from outside the borough—in sufficient numbers almost to sustain two additional secondary schools. Will the Minister carefully consider the two bids for specialist school status that will be on his desk—or near it—from King John's school and Deans school in my constituency?
Castle Point needs a specialist school, as it does not have one, to reward excellence and invest in success, to give parents more choice and diversity in the constituency, where they appreciate it—they have shown that by their actions—to reward good schools and parents, to give society the highest possible return on its investment in education, and, most importantly, to provide further opportunity for the children in my constituency—and they are excellent children.
One of the defining political differences is that the Labour party tends to level down and back failure, whereas the Conservative party backs success and wants to level up. That is why we promote grammar schools and the assisted places scheme. We must invest in success because that is our core philosophy. I hope that the Minister will consider sympathetically the bids from Castle Point. If he does not, he knows that I shall repeatedly return to the issue.
Further education is also important in raising standards in schools. A sixth form enables the school to improve standards at every level. Therefore, I am delighted that the Government propose to allow schools to add a sixth form without central approval and the old change of character application to the Secretary of State. It would be perverse in the extreme for the Government to deny Canvey Island in my constituency a sixth form and refuse the current application for one.
I have fought on the issue since before I became a Member of Parliament. Essex LEA has betrayed young people in Canvey Island for decades by denying them a sixth form. The 16-plus, two-year cohort on Canvey Island is more than 1,000 youngsters, so, on national average staying-on rates, a sixth form would certainly be viable, although I accept that some young people would want to leave the island for their further education.
The Minister is aware, as I have told him before, that there is not one sixth form place on the entire island, which has a population of about 38,000. That is simply unacceptable. The county council has failed my young people, and I will not allow that failure to continue.
As there are no sixth form places, it is not surprising that the staying-on rate on Canvey Island is only two thirds of that for the rest of my constituency. It is also not surprising that unemployment is higher on Canvey Island than in the rest of my constituency. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Tuesday:
The correlation between education standards and employment is clear."—[Official Report, 29 October 1996; Vol. 284, c. 476.]
Let me therefore put the case as strongly as I can to the Minister that he should carefully consider the current application, and I hope to hear from him soon.
Another reason why I belong to the Conservative party rather than the Labour party is that the Labour party locally is opposed to a sixth form for Canvey Island, as it wants to level down. Levelling down is not just a philosophy; Labour is carrying it through.
Morals are primarily the responsibility of parents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) so eloquently explained, but the moral dimension to education is important. It is the foundation of knowledge, a thread that should run through all subjects and all years.
I have raised moral issues in the House and elsewhere for many years—religious education, the need for a disciplined framework in which children can learn, teaching right from wrong, the evil of child smoking and drugs, the availability of pornographic and violent materials and their impact on our children. But one moral issue stands above all others—the value, sanctity and dignity of human life, and the right to life.
What should schools teach children about abortion? Should they teach anything? Ironically, those who want children to be taught about sex and condoms often want to deny them knowledge about abortion, an understanding of how and why the life of a child is taken, the unspeakably horrific and brutal manner in which it is taken, and the impact on the mother, who is the second victim of abortion.
It would be inconsistent to ignore the issue of abortion and life in education if we are to address morality in school. Unless we teach our children the basis of all morality—to honour, value and respect life—how can we start to give moral guidance in schools and leadership to our children?
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) fails to give leadership on that key issue. In his parliamentary career, he could have voted on life matters 28 times. He abstained on 15 of those occasions and voted for abortion 13 times. He did not vote for life once, but he claims to be against abortion. The Labour leader says one thing and does another. He is as inconsistent on this issue as he is on education.
I shall get straight back to the subject.
There is much to win and much to lose on education at the next election. Giving Labour a chance in power would be disastrous. It did not take Labour long to destroy the education system comprehensively when they had power some years ago. Labour destroyed our traditional teaching methods—whole class teaching, tables, spelling and reading methods. Labour introduced rampant political correctness into teaching and gave us mixed ability teaching, which holds back the able, fails the average and demoralises the weak, who cannot compete.
Labour would destroy grant-maintained schools, specialist schools and selective schools. It would remove choice and diversity, replacing them with a monolithic uniformity and central control. All that would quickly turn around the improvements in standards that are now being secured by dedicated teachers and excellent headmasters and governing bodies. Labour would throw our system of education into chaos again.
There would be real danger for education, as for other areas, in a short sharp Labour shock. I hope, for the good of us all, that the people will avoid that.
I begin with an apology to the House. Unfortunately, I shall have to leave the Chamber briefly soon after I finish speaking.
Were we to analyse the debates on education that we have had during the past year, we might be surprised by how many areas of agreement there are. There is considerable agreement on ends, although there may be disagreement about the means to those ends in some cases. Today's debate shows that there is all-party agreement on the importance of leadership for improving schools. Effective leadership is clearly vital. There has also been agreement on both sides on the important contribution that the relationship between home and school can make. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) was right to say that we have, perhaps, for far too long discussed the rights of parents and children without discussing the other side of the coin, which is their responsibilities.
There is probably agreement on both sides that an effective school is one in which there is a clear ethos and in which there is a disciplined environment. The disagreement concerns some of the means that may be used to ensure that disciplined environment. For the record, I make it clear that I am fundamentally opposed to the reintroduction of corporal punishment, for two key reasons. First, there is no evidence that corporal punishment is an effective means of reducing indiscipline in schools. Secondly, I find it almost unbelievable that people think that it is possible to reduce violence in Our society by using a violent form of punishment.
There is also clear agreement about the need for us to have high expectations of young people in our schools. As I said in a recent debate, I suspect that a number of schools are not expecting enough of our young people. There is agreement about the need to share good practice and about the need for benchmark testing.
There has been agreement about the need to make better use of our school facilities outside normal school hours. I am delighted to be a trustee of an organisation called Education Extra, which promotes the effective use of schools outside school teaching time to help young people develop a wider range of skills, abilities and interests.
There is also considerable agreement about the vital importance of the early years. There is now unanimity that high-quality early years education is vital. The disagreement, which has been well documented, is on the means of achieving that. Again, I make clear for the record my fundamental opposition to the development of nursery education through the use of the now discredited, highly complex, bureaucratic and cumbersome nursery voucher scheme.
The Minister says no. He was not, of course, present, as I was, at recent sittings of the Select Committee on Education when we took evidence from the various areas involved in the scheme. We listened to contributions from those who have had direct experience of the operation of the nursery voucher scheme in the four pilot areas.
Only this week, at a conference attended and addressed by both the Norfolk chief education officer and myself, the chief education officer made it clear on behalf of the largest of the phase 1 areas that the scheme was not bureaucratic, and that there were no significant administrative problems.
The Minister is normally keen to defend the importance of the private sector and the voluntary sector in nursery education. He now seems to want to ignore the very real concerns expressed to us in the Select Committee by the Pre-School Learning Alliance about its experiences in Norfolk. However, that is a subject for another debate. I merely wanted to place on record the vital importance of high-quality early years education as part of an effective improving schools programme.
As I said, there is much agreement in many areas. However, one area in which there is clear disagreement between the Government and the Opposition was outlined in the Minister's opening remarks. He said that this would not be a debate about resources. The implication is that improving the level of resources will do nothing to improve what happens in our schools. Frankly, that is nonsense.
I do not think that there can be a parent, a teacher, a governor or, indeed, anybody in the country who would not accept the basic premise that if we were, for example, to increase the amount of books and equipment in our schools it would have an impact on the quality of educational provision. I doubt that many people would disagree that raising levels of achievement for all must include children with special educational needs, or that increasing the resources available to help children with special educational needs would not help them.
There can be very few people now—not least after the various bits of research to which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) referred and the recent research carried out by Nottingham university—who do not believe that making more resources available to ensure that we can reduce class sizes is going to raise levels of achievement in our schools. Those three areas—more books and equipment, more support for children with special educational needs and reducing class sizes—are all vital to improving levels of attainment in schools throughout the land.
The fourth area where additional resources are necessary—in this I am supported by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools—is in improving the quality of school buildings. In the age of the information super-highway, it is a disgrace that far too many children are attending schools that still have outside loos, and far too many children are in schools that are crumbling, with the backlog of repairs and maintenance well in excess of £3 billion. We need to invest more resources to do something about that. As the chief inspector himself said, poor quality buildings inhibit the ability of teachers to do their jobs.
One separate means by which we could improve achievement in our schools, on which there is growing agreement on both sides of the House, is inspection. I have never criticised the idea of school inspection. My concern has increasingly been that, for rather a long time, we have seemed to treat inspection as an operation in its own right. For too long we have separated inspection on the one hand from advice and support on the other. I see little point in a procedure of inspection that identifies problems in a school—often problems that the school already knew about—if no advice and support are available to help the school solve those problems.
Due to cuts in local education authority funding, there has been a significant reduction in the availability of local advisers and inspectors. The few who remain often spend so much of their time bidding for Ofsted inspection work that they have very little opportunity to provide advice and help for their own schools. It is vital to find ways of linking advice and support. One thing that the improving schools programme, the Teacher Training Agency and others suggest—I entirely agree—is that schools should look at their own self-improvement programmes. The targeting approach to which the Minister referred needs to go very much further. Those developed targeting approaches need to be directly linked to the school's individual development plan and budget. All three need to be brought together under the supervision of the local advisory and support services.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the solution lies in a far more flexible inspection regime, because some schools require more frequent inspection and others, self-evidently, do not?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course there is agreement across the Floor of the House on that. Most people would now accept that we need to move to, perhaps, a six or seven-year inspection cycle, with greater powers for inspectors to be called in by local authority advisers, governors or teachers themselves in cases of particular need. The critical thing is not to base a regime on a one-off inspection but to take account of what happens in the intervening period between one major Ofsted inspection and the next.
While I am on the issue of inspection, I raise a point to which I hope the Minister will respond. If inspection is important, it is also important that we have confidence in it. The inspection procedure for the nursery settings, during the trial period of nursery vouchers, gives some cause for concern. I have had confirmed information that Group 4 was given the contract to sort out the inspection arrangements and I am sure the procedures were fair and proper. However, I am concerned to discover that, in the award of the contracts for the inspection of the nursery voucher settings in phase 1, the three assessors from Group 4 who made those decisions had no educational experience whatever. None of them had been involved in the inspection process, although one had experience of being inspected.
I am also concerned by other aspects of the awarding of contracts. I wonder why the British Association of Early Childhood Education, which has a wealth of experience in schools and of inspection, was awarded no contracts when Penzer Allen Ltd. of Sevenoaks and Child and Co. Ltd. from Wallingford in Oxfordshire received contracts. That is worrying, and I hope that the Minister will agree to carry out an investigation, not least into why Ofsted had so little input into the process.
Teachers are a vital element in improving what happens in our schools, and they need more support than they are getting. I quoted earlier from a recent speech by the head of the Teacher Training Agency and the Minister accused me of quoting selectively from her remarks. I can assure the House that I quoted only a few of her many concerns about the barrage of criticism that is being directed at the moment against teachers. She also said:
But for those many teachers who are visibly striving to meet all the demands which society places on them, including raising the standards of pupil achievement, this approach is positively harmful.
She did not identify people by name, but she said that she was concerned about those
who seem to think that improvement requires a three-course diet of criticism, criticism and more criticism.
We must give more support to our teachers, and we must quickly establish, as the hon. Member for Walton said, we a professional body for teachers—a general teaching council. We must give teachers the tools to do the job and we must treat them as professionals. Having done that, we must expect far more from them, but we must stop trying to tell teachers how to teach and how to organise their classes. That is something best left to the professionals.
Finally, one issue has not been mentioned in this debate and it needs urgently to be addressed. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam rightly referred to the desire on both sides of the House to devolve more power and responsibility for individual, day-to-day decision making to individual schools and to the governors of those schools. If we are to do that, the time has come to start addressing the question of the accountability of governors. If we are to give them, rightly, more power, we need to ask to whom the governors will be accountable. What are the means of accountability? It should not be only the annual governors' report to parents, which usually takes place on a wet Thursday evening to the three or four parents who turn up to sit on under-sized chairs. We have to develop the means of accountability.
The whole question of power, responsibility and accountability needs to be addressed more widely. If we consider the two schools in the news recently, it is extremely worrying that we have had so many people saying, "It's nothing to do with me, guy. It is somebody else's fault." We do not know who is responsible for what in our increasingly fractured education service, and to whom those people are accountable. If we are to improve our schools, we should turn our attention to that issue. People should know to whom they can turn for redress when they have a grievance, and whom they can praise, which I hope they will be able to do more often in the future.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate on the improving schools programme, which is more than a year old. At the outset, that programme recognised that the key to improving schools lay in the classroom. That view has been reflected in many of the contributions to this excellent debate. Sadly, another debate is taking place in the media, to which I shall refer later.
I should declare an interest: my connection with the Professional Association of Teachers. However, my remarks will be purely personal—based on my experience as a teacher, as the Member of Parliament for Norwich, North and as someone with an interest in education. I am always interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), because we both have a connection with science teaching. I cannot help agreeing with some of his comments: if two science teachers are put together, they will inevitably have points of agreement. He referred to the points of agreement that arose during the debate, of which there were many.
I shall not take up the points made by the hon. Member for Bath about funding, because I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister that the debate is not about the funding of schools. However, I want to caution the hon. Gentleman. After the war, my father was an architect who designed schools. The hon. Gentleman must not think that a new school is an educational panacea. My father told me—and I have learnt since—that grievous mistakes are often made in the design of new schools.
Flat roofs, too much sunshine coming in, the greenhouse effect and so on. Many of the schools that were built in the 1940s and 1950s—I know that is a long time ago—were faulty. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will not get too carried away by the idea of new buildings. We should beware when any Government propose to build new schools, because good education does not correlate with good or new buildings I am not suggesting that no new buildings should be constructed, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes note of my cautionary word.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) is not present, because I was interested in his remarks. He agreed with the Government on a number of issues, mainly when he was following the policies adopted by my hon. Friend the Minister. That is good news. However, I did not understand his explanation of the Labour party's commitment to the abolition of the assisted places scheme. I am aware of the debate about the independent sector and the state sector. The matter has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), who is not present this morning. I am an ex-independent school teacher, but I shall not go into the underlying issues. In my opinion, the case for abolishing the assisted places scheme has not been made, and it was not made earlier, so the debate will continue.
The Opposition totally fail to convince me when they try to justify their abolition of direct grant schools, as the hon. Member for Walton tried to do earlier. Many poorer people who were receiving a rattling good education from direct grant schools can no longer do so, because those schools are now in the independent sector. The Opposition cannot escape their responsibility for that negative measure enacted when they were in power many years ago.
The situation in the Ridings school is undoubtedly serious, but I agree with the hon. Member for Walton and with the Minister that the matter is highly complex, and it would be inadvisable for any of us to start launching into detail or producing solutions.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) that the position has not been helped by the recent media treatment of education and morals. Unfortunately, the media often have a negative effect on such issues, and that has happened with education recently. Of course it is right that such issues should be raised and reported, but not that the negative should always be emphasised at the expense of the positive.
Yesterday in the Tea Room I was relieved to read an article in Country Life about all the good things going on in this country, and that contained something about education. I wish that the media in general would realise that my constituents, of all party political persuasions, are fed up with the endless doom and gloom that the media pour out day by day. Of course they should report difficulties in schools, but they must think carefully about the way in which they do so.
One of the issues raised recently is corporal punishment. The Minister mentioned it this morning. I was educated in and taught at schools that used corporal punishment. I was never opposed to it. I think that there is a case for it, often as a last resort, and I suspect that that view is shared by most hon. Members. If the question were to be decided again I would vote in favour. But I was interested in the Minister's remarks—
My hon. Friend and almost everyone else here, certainly those who have been present since the start of the debate, may be surprised to hear that a report is circulating of our earlier exchanges which is rather different from what I thought was said. So I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me briefly to clarify one specific point. I said, and I confirm again, that, if any professional group of teachers made proposals on discipline, naturally we would consider them—but I also confirm that no proposal for corporal punishment has been made by any such group. Moreover, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear, as I thought that I had, that not only is there nothing on the subject in the Education Bill but that we will not back any amendment to that effect which may be tabled.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. I was never opposed to corporal punishment in the schools in which I taught. It was not used often. It should not be the norm, but where it was used it was effective. I believe—I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister shares my view, but no doubt he will correct me if I am wrong—that this is not the only issue at the heart of the debate about teaching and morals.
Most hon. Members, however they would vote, probably do not see this as a crunch issue. Of course the media love to have a crunch issue. Let them, but so far as I know we can think what we like in this place, and I say that it is not the only issue at the heart of the debate.
I shall now return to recent events in one or two schools, including the Ridings school. This had better be the last criticism that I make of the press, because I have been getting at the media. I was encouraged to see some of the more dignified pupils at the Ridings school and elsewhere putting the reporters and television crews to rights. We know that there are difficulties in such schools, but those young people said, "Look, there are good things about our school. Please report them." I hope that the media take note and listen to the good young people, as well as to the troublemakers who are causing all the problems and who must be dealt with firmly by the appropriate authority.
If things are in bad shape in education, the media must take their share of responsibility. Mary Whitehouse had a point all along, and she is still—thank goodness—expressing her opinion. I hope that some of us are listening. My experience as a teacher for 23 years and a Member of Parliament for 13 years confirms what has been said in the debate: much excellent work is going on in thousands of schools throughout the country. That cannot be stated too often; it must be acknowledged and broadcast. The good work of the teachers must also be recognised. Fortunately, the point has been made by hon. Members on both sides, so I need not labour it.
The Government achievements must be acknowledged, too. I am not uncritical of everything that the Government have done in education, and I may make some criticisms later, but there have been achievements. The increase in spending per pupil since 1979 is real and significant. The introduction of the national curriculum, which had hiccups on the way but was generally desired, is to the Government's credit. Despite the difficulties that were mentioned earlier, the introduction of assessment tests and performance tables and the devolution of financial and managerial powers to schools are generally accepted and welcomed, certainly in my constituency.
As the Minister rightly said in his opening remarks, the key criterion in any school is whether the head teacher and staff are good. That has been my experience, regardless of the kind of school—my wife taught in secondary modern schools in Manchester years ago. I am in favour of good governors and parent-school co-operation, but if the governors and parents have to interfere too much, there is something wrong. The key is with the head teacher and the staff. We hope that in most schools they are effective and there need not be too much interference.
The Labour party, rather belatedly, has recognised the benefit of most of the reforms that we carried out. The Minister described those in detail and reminded the House that the Labour party had voted against most of the proposals. We know, however, that Labour's stance has shifted over recent months and years. I shall not dwell on that, as the debate has been fairly uncontroversial so far.
Nothing is more relevant to improving schools and more important than the belated and welcome shake-up of teacher training. For years I, with many colleagues in the House and outside, have been calling for that. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not take it hard if I say that the good news is probably about 15 years late. We have known for a long time that there was a problem with teacher training.
When I entered teaching in 1960, several of the better schools said that it did not matter whether one attended a teacher training college, because what one learned there was not very good. So I was one of those who went into teaching without training. That does not mean that I am against teacher training. I tell young people who go into teaching now that they must have teacher training. It is not right—I do not think that it is even possible—for graduates to go into teaching without training. Back in the 1950s, teacher training did not have a good reputation—and we know why. In many ways the system has improved since then, but it has not improved enough. If it had improved enough we would not be facing many of the problems that we are debating this morning.
I feel strongly about this subject. The Government are entirely right to instigate a shake-up. We have already debated how many people are involved and dealt with that, but when the chief inspector identifies mediocre or weak teaching the fault must lie either with poor selection of teachers in the first place or with poor training thereafter—or, as I have already suggested, with poor leadership.
So the training of teachers and head teachers is vital, and the Government are right to announce a curriculum for teacher training with core subjects of English and mathematics. It is also right, at long last, to suggest that teacher training colleges deal with more than the history and philosophy of education, fascinating and important though they are. I did not find it easy in the classroom when I began teaching. Some people are naturals who find it easy from the start, but most teachers are not like that. They need training in disciplinary methods and in how to handle classes and teach effectively. It is good news that all these ideas are to be introduced to teacher training—the Secretary of State is quite right to drive them through.
I hope that consideration will also be given to training head teachers and senior staff—I suspect that it will be. For years I have been calling for a staff college for head teachers. In the services, the system of a staff college for senior officers works very well, and I still think it a good idea even if the Government do not. It would be useful to have a prestigious institution for senior teachers going on to posts of responsibility.
I hope that there will not be too much delegating to committees in this context. Nor do I want a search for consensus. In this I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who made an excellent speech. The very root of the word "education" implies leadership. My classics are a little out of date but I am fairly certain of that. Leadership and example are of the essence. There are so many examples of head teachers and staff providing both of them; they must be encouraged.
Committees, as I say, are to be discouraged in this initiative. For heaven's sake let us not have another national forum. I have nothing personal against the 150 members of the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community. I have studied its document; it is well meaning. anodyne and possibly useful. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam so eloquently said, the fact that marriage has been left out is inexplicable, which just proves my point.
The Department for Education and Employment must stop delegating these things to committees, and looking for consensus. What our education system needs, under any Government of any philosophy, is leadership. I hope therefore that any future Government will provide it, and not just delegate and search for the lowest common denominator. I have every admiration for the members of the forum, but they finished up with the lowest common denominator. One cannot disagree with anything in the document, but it will not have much effect on pupils in any of the schools I know. I therefore hope that the five dissenters on the point about marriage and the family will get their way in the end; and I hope that the Minister has noted my support for the ideas expressed by other Members earlier in this debate.
In just over a week's time, we will debate the Education Bill, about which some positive points have been made. I will confine myself to saying that I very much support the measures involving school discipline and exclusions, as do my constituents. Reports in the Eastern Daily Press in the past 48 hours have said that these are good measures that are supported by the leaders of the teaching profession, and I wish the Bill all success.
The clauses arranging for the inspection of local education authorities appear to have the support of the Opposition and, obviously, I support them. Perhaps that should be the end of it, but there is also a little clause about the removal of inspectors from the Ofsted register. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to explain more about what this means when he winds up the debate. However, I must be a little critical—Ofsted is not perfect.
The Minister will be horrified—if he is not aware of it already—to learn about the Ofsted report on Heartsease comprehensive school in my constituency. It contained grammatical and spelling mistakes that were worse than anything produced by the pupils. This matter hit the local newspapers and, I suspect, the national newspapers. My hon. Friend will understand that I was a little reluctant to raise the matter, but I felt that I had to. given the subject of the debate. If the reports are true—and if the photograph I saw of pupils at Heartsease school making notes on the blackboard of all the mistakes in the Ofsted report is also true—I hope that heads will roll.
My hon. Friend knows that, although these operational matters lie fully with Ofsted and not with Ministers, I can assure him of two things—first, that the publicity has indeed been national, no doubt because of the general excellence of other Ofsted reports and, secondly, that the matter has unquestionably been brought to the attention of the chief inspector.
I was reluctant to raise the matter, but I felt that it should not escape notice, and I am delighted that action is being taken. The Government must keep a close eye on the quality of inspection, as has been stated by hon. Members of all parties. A bit of bureaucracy and political correctness of the worst sort has been creeping into some of Ofsted's work and—in relation to nursery education—we must look closely at what happens on the ground when inspections take place. We are looking for good quality in education—that is what today's debate is all about. But I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look closely at what is happening, because some of the reports have proved rather disturbing to me as an ex-teacher.
The Government are rightly committed to the objective of matching our competitors in education and training but I think that we should aim higher, as I have tried to explain in detail on other occasions. We must aim to be the best-educated and best-trained nation in the world. For that reason, the improving schools programme must be encouraged and strengthened, and all power to the elbow of those presently responsible.
I very much welcome the debate, and I agree with what the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) said about the desirability of avoiding party point scoring on this important subject. I welcome the opportunity to draw attention to and celebrate the improvements in standards achieved by the three secondary schools in my constituency in the past year, as a good deal could be learned from their experiences.
I was a member of Newham council for 12 years, and throughout that time, the council wanted to raise the levels of achievement in our schools. We were completely open about it, and we acknowledged that there was a problem that we wanted to address. Why was there a problem? The Government say that Newham has the highest level of urban deprivation in the country, but their local authority funding formula works in a perverse way to deprive Newham of the resources that ought to be spent there. Many youngsters arrive in our schools needing English language support—40 per cent. of Newham school pupils need such support—and 40 per cent. are eligible for free school meals. All those factors add up to a tough job for the schools.
There is nevertheless a great deal of optimism in Newham. Things are changing, and major investment projects are planned for the area. The international station at Stratford on the high-speed link to the channel tunnel will bring many jobs to the area. Green street is becoming the country's most popular Asian shopping centre. Major plans are taking shape for the royal docks: the new university college will go on site next summer, and we are awaiting confirmation of funding for London's biggest exhibition complex alongside the Royal Victoria dock. Yesterday, I was fascinated to learn of the Zoological Society of London's £100-million plan for a new national aquarium in the royal docks. All those projects will bring in new jobs and create new opportunities, especially for young people in the area.
In addition to those developments, the population is growing—Newham has the largest proportion in the country of households with children under five. The borough resonates with bright, keen, energetic youngsters, many of whom or whose parents were born outside the United Kingdom. Our future and London's future now depend on our harnessing and developing their skills and talents. The great challenge facing us is to equip those youngsters to grasp successfully the many opportunities that are coming to east London. The stakes are high, but the consequences of failure do not bear thinking about. If we succeed—as we must—the area's future will be bright indeed.
That is why the local authority is so determined to raise standards in our schools—that is where success or failure will be decided. We have never pretended that everything was wonderful. We have always acknowledged openly that we had a serious problem of under-achievement, and we have been determined, working in partnership with others, to set matters right. Step by step, the benefits of that commitment and determination are emerging, as seen in the success achieved last summer by the three secondary schools in my constituency.
I shall summarise the wide range of initiatives being taken in Newham to raise standards in schools. The local authority has been publishing school-by-school GCSE results for a long time—long before that was required by the Government. We never had any problem with doing so, because the local authority recognised that publication of results was essential to provide a firm and public basis for measurable improvement targets.
The local authority also introduced baseline assessments for five-year-olds and 12-year-olds. We have already heard in the debate that the Government propose to make those mandatory for five-year-olds. That is fine. but in Newham both five and 12-year-olds are already assessed, to provide a firmer starting point for school targets at an earlier stage in pupils' education than is provided by GCSE tables.
The authority is working with all our schools to set targets for the end of key stage assessments and it is providing schools with help in analysing GCSE results, setting targets for the following year and developing school level improvement strategies. The authority is also helping schools to prepare for Ofsted inspections by carrying out a pre-Ofsted check of each school and helping staff to draw up action plans both before and after the Ofsted inspection.
Of particular interest is the authority's learning community strategy, which contains several elements. Next year, at least two Saturday schools will be introduced, one starting in January and the other in September. They will be based on secondary school sites and will offer additional learning opportunities to children in the last two years of primary school. The curriculum will be based on the secondary curriculum and additional basic skills tuition will be available to all pupils. That is a major initiative. There will be additional study support for GCSE pupils. There is already much activity in Newham in the form of homework clubs' enhanced revision schemes, but we are gearing up for a major expansion of such schemes in the coming 12 months.
Thirdly, there will be at least one summer school for up to 2,000 pupils in the late primary and early secondary stages next summer. Like the Saturday schools, they will provide additional opportunities for pupils in specialist subjects and in basic skills.
Newham has a very good record on early-years work, and much has been done to improve attendance—action plans have been drawn up for each school—and strategic partnerships have been developments with parents through home-school agreements and agreements with governors and others. For example, Tate and Lyle, the largest private sector improvement in the borough, is working with the local authority to raise the standard of literacy in schools. It is an excellent scheme, to which Tate and Lyle has made a great contribution.
This financial year, as a result of successful financial management, the council has been able to make available nearly £6 million—much of it from its own reserves—for 69 maintenance and improvement projects at almost 50 schools in Newham. Projects range from the re-roofing of a primary school to the building of new science laboratories at the girls' secondary school.
I am not saying that the problems have all been solved, but progress is there for all to see. Things are moving in the right direction. Ten years ago, just over 8 per cent. of 16-year-olds in Newham were achieving five GCSE grades A to C, or their equivalent. Last summer, that figure had risen to 28 per cent., and 82 per cent. secured five GCSEs at levels A to G. The results in each of the past 10 years. Progress has been made elsewhere, too. Against the national trend, the number of permanent exclusions from Newham schools is falling. Much remains to be done, but there is much to celebrate.
I was disappointed that, in an otherwise thoughtful speech, the Minister chose to embark on an attack on the chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. I understand the pressures placed on him by colleagues who are sensitive to the fact that the Conservatives are 28 per cent. behind in the polls—time is running out, and they are naturally edgy and perhaps need cheering up. However, the Minister should resist such pressure, in view of the importance of the matter. Of course, the chair of the AMA is the chair of Newham education authority.
I would hate what I said to be interpreted as an attack, not least because I meet Councillor Lane regularly, perhaps even more often than the hon. Gentleman does. I thought that I was merely saying that he holds strong views, but that they do not happen to be those of the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues.
My point is that the individual we are talking about has, as chair of Newham education authority, presided over the very programme that I have been describing, which has focused wholly on raising standards in our schools. It is beyond dispute that the programme has produced impressive results, but it must continue, because there is still more to be done.
I conclude with a brief comment on each of the three secondary schools to which I referred. Each of them did well last summer. They are very different schools, and I have visited all three in the past month. The first is Langdon, a big mixed comprehensive. It has always been highly regarded in Newham, but in recent years there has been a significant leap in its ambition and determination to equip its youngsters for the future. Officials at the Department for Education and Employment know the school well, and visit it often. That level of interest from the Department is greatly appreciated locally.
The school's determination to improve is reflected in its achievements. Last year, 30 per cent. of pupils taking GCSEs achieved at least five A to C grades; this year, the figure was 35 per cent. That trend will continue.
The head teacher picks out three special strands in the successful efforts to improve the school. The first was to create an ethos and a "can do" atmosphere at Langdon school, emphasising the importance of responsible citizenship on the part of the students. Student participation was encouraged in school and year councils. The students were involved in the drafting of a behaviour code, which set out the expectations that pupils could have of the school, and, equally, what the school expected of its students. An ethos has successfully been created in the school.
The second strand picked out by the head was an emphasis on sporting achievement. Tomorrow morning. 20 teams from Langdon school and another Newham school will take part in competitions on Wanstead Flats. Each year, at a major assembly, presentations are made to all those who have taken part in the school's teams during the year. There is an award to the sportsman and sportswoman of the year. That process contributes to raising the general level of achievement throughout the school, particularly among boys. The question of boys' achievement has already rightly been raised in the debate.
The third strand is achievement in the arts. I was recently at the school for a dance presentation. A professional choreographer had come into the school with funding from Lea Valley regional park, and an excellent performance was the result. There are links with artists, and work has been done with the local primary schools to support Langdon's art curriculum. There are drama performances in the community.
All those developments contribute to the esteem of the pupils and their sense of achievement. The last two strands are not necessarily academic, but they have contributed to a much improved level of achievement throughout the school. Any visitor to the school can see the effects of that.
The second school I want to mention, Little Ilford school, is in a very different position. It is a large, mixed comprehensive. It has more than 1,000 pupils who speak a second language alongside or instead of English at home. In April last year, the Ofsted inspection at Little Ilford resulted in the school's being deemed to need special measures. That verdict was confirmed last summer, when only 11 per cent. of the youngsters at the school achieved five or more grades A to C at GCSE.
However, this year the picture is different. The school feels different to walk into. The head, who came into post shortly before the Ofsted inspection, has transformed the school. She singles out particularly the strength of the support from the local authority in allowing her to take that transformation through. The local authority has given access to a special fund to enable improvements to be made, and has attached an inspector as the lead inspector to work alongside the school in dealing with the problems that Ofsted rightly identified.
This summer, the proportion of pupils achieving five or more grades A to C at GCSE exceeded 20 per cent. and there is great confidence—I am very confident—that the trend of improvement will continue as a result of the successful partnership between the school and the LEA in dealing with the problems that had arisen.
The last school to which I wish to refer is Plashet school, an all-girls comprehensive with pupils drawn largely from the ethnic minority communities in East Ham. The recently appointed head—herself an Asian teacher—like her colleagues, has brought a new determination to raise the standards in that school. Last year, 29 per cent. of pupils gained five or more grades A to C at GCSE; this year, the figure was 43 per cent. That is not a fluke, but the product of determination and hard work through a series of carefully planned initiatives to raise the level of achievement in that school.
The school targets students who are on the borderline between grades C and D as they approach GCSE, and the heads of department and subject staff work together to ensure that they get the extra help that they need. A revision programme was organised, with funding from the London Docklands development corporation; teachers offer extra sessions at weekends and during holidays to prepare their pupils for GCSE; and there is a programme of monitoring attendance and ensuring that students do not miss school.
Requests are often made for pupils in year 11 to go on extended holidays to visit relatives in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh; the school refuses those requests, because it wants to emphasise the importance of pupils remaining in school throughout year 11 to achieve their maximum potential at GCSE. All those initiatives and more have been successful, and will continue to improve achievement at Plashet school.
A great deal remains to be done, but I was impressed by the determination of head teachers and staff in all three secondary schools in my constituency to improve standards, working in partnership with the local authority and with employers in the borough, and by the significant and measurable progress achieved as a result.
I want to speak about three aspects of the improving schools programme, the first of which is targets.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) spoke at length, drawing from his considerable experience, about the feeling that a teacher has at the chalk face about whether a school is operating successfully. He rightly referred to motivation and to similar non-measurable items. The weakness in concentrating solely on that aspect, important though it is, is that any judgment must ultimately be subjective, making it impossible to achieve a proper comparison between schools, or between one school's performance one year and the next. That is why it is essential that the programme includes some measurement via targets.
I would share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Newham, South if the only target to be used were some fixed national target against which all schools would be measured; but, as I understand it, the programme will use a system of benchmarks to enable schools to be measured against others of the same type, taking into account factors such as the background, location and history of the school—and, indeed, its intake. Once those factors are in the formula, comparison becomes possible; that is important because it provides the extra pressure and challenge of trying incrementally to improve the quality that schools offer in education, which is what our education system should always aim at.
The national curriculum and testing have been in place long enough to allow schools to make proper measurements, and I am glad that the onus is placed on the schools to do that. I welcome the intention to legislate to require schools to enshrine targets annually in their reports, to monitor the targets and measure their progress against them, and to produce plans to explain how they intend to improve the quality of education they deliver to meet those targets. Those are all aspects of the improving schools programme that I welcome.
I am also pleased about the exchange of information between schools, which enables best practice to become common practice. That has always been a feature of education in Britain, but it has not been encouraged as much as it could be. With a fairly new scheme such as this, which has been running for about 18 months, it is important to draw on examples of practical successes and methods that have worked well in one school, and use them in other schools.
I was especially pleased that one aspect of the encouragement to share information was the launch of a site on the Internet last June. I have looked at the Internet site with considerable interest. There is much useful information which, if I may put it this way, has been handed down from on high, but even more useful is the ability of individual teachers to communicate quickly and directly with teachers throughout the country. I looked at one of the threads, or conferences, that is taking place on the Internet on the subject. I was delighted that teachers from all parts of the country were almost instantaneously able to share information. That was not so easy in the past.
About 50 per cent. of schools are already on the Internet, and it is easy and cheap for others to join, so I hope that the rest soon will. I hope that this small start will result in a mushrooming of information exchange and positive progress that will derive from schools and teachers drawing on successful experiments and following the leaders—the people who are prepared to innovate and prove that they have achieved something—so that it can be drawn on and used in other schools. I am pleased that that aspect of the programme is working so successfully, even early on.
The third aspect that I want briefly to discuss is failing schools. I do so with some trepidation, because it has become such an emotive subject, almost as if it had never been a problem before, which is not true. However, this is the sort of problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) rightly identified with the media: the sudden dramatic focusing on a problem, which a few weeks later is forgotten. The problems of the Ridings school are especially severe, but there are problems at other schools.
The matter needs to be put in context. We must remember that the vast majority of schools are not a bit like that but are performing well and producing good and improving results. They have dedicated staff and teachers and good leadership, and they work in a framework of encouragement, diversity and choice that enables them to provide very good education to our children.
That is no excuse for not concentrating on failing schools, and I am pleased that we now have a specific, structured programme that will enable failed or failing schools to be dealt with and for the necessary resources, techniques and solutions to be applied, and applied transparently. That is essential. Such problems can no longer be swept under the carpet; nor should they be.
My constituency is in the London borough of Bromley, which is nationally recognised for its high education standards. I am proud that the vast majority of its primary and secondary schools are of the highest order. The public are well aware of that, and are pleased with it. That does not mean that there are no problems. Some schools have had difficult reputations in the past. I am glad that one of those now has a much improved reputation, and it is continuing to improve. I refer to the Cator Park school for girls, which now sends pupils to Oxford and produces pupils who get three A grades at A-level. That school, which once had an equivocal reputation, has now set and met its own targets through a flexible and innovative approach to teaching. It has overcome its past difficulties through the hard work of its head teacher, Ann Tiggin, and I wish it every success in the future.
Sadly, one other school in the borough, Kelsey Park school for boys, which is in my constituency, was officially declared a failing school in May. In fact, it has had severe problems for many years. The benefit of that declaration is that it has galvanised the school and concentrated minds tremendously. It has now put in place a tough programme for improvement, and has a first-class new head teacher. It is returning to some of the traditional teaching methods that were sadly lacking from that school in the past.
It is interesting that so many speakers today have referred to the importance of leadership and having a good head at a school. Kelsey Park boys school suffered badly in the past three years, precisely because it did not have proper leadership. The head teacher became ill, unfortunately, and there followed an long interregnum, when a series of acting head teachers were appointed. It was difficult for people like me to know who was in charge at any one time. As those head teachers knew that they were only acting, it was difficult for them to make any long-term commitments.
It is apparent to me that one of the main causes of the problems at the school was the lack of good leadership from a good head. That has been put right. The new head, whom I have met, is dynamic and determined. I am to attend the school next week to present prizes. That occasion is an innovation for the school—there has been no such thing as a prize giving in living memory. How can one motivate pupils without a return to some of the traditional, but well-tried, practices such as prize giving?
I am pleased that the school is on an improving curve, and it is important that it should continue. The Ofsted report that led to the school being described as failing highlights some of the underlying problems that exist in other failing schools.
One such problem was discipline. The inspectors wrote about "shortcomings" and "poor standards of behaviour", which was certainly true—any local resident would tell the inspectors that. Without a disciplined environment, how can one be expected to teach properly? I am suggesting a disciplined environment not for a reactionary reason, but for a purely practical one. It is the only way in which a school can perform and teachers can teach. If they are in danger of being assaulted, everything else is lost.
It is quite appalling to see the bad message coming out of the publicity surrounding the Ridings school, or similar messages about events that are tolerated at local schools. Television cameras have filmed children going to the Ridings putting two fingers up to the teachers walking in front of them. What message does that send to young people and other pupils? If pupils think that they can get away with such behaviour, those who are tempted to misbehave surely will. It is therefore essential to deal with such incidents sharply and swiftly.
I am in favour of teachers, governors and head teachers having at their disposal all the armoury they consider necessary to enforce discipline. It is up to them to choose what they believe to be the most effective methods for their environment. It is not for us or others to limit their ability to take action when necessary. Firm action and a firm atmosphere of discipline, set in advance, will prevent discipline problems from materialising. Otherwise, by the time they do, it will, sadly, be too late for the school. A disciplined framework is essential.
The Ofsted report on Kelsey Park school also said:
However, the ethos of the school does not engender a high profile for the social, moral, spiritual and cultural development of pupils.
That, too, is critical. In a disciplined environment, there must also be a positive ethos: children must be taught what is right and what is wrong. They will not necessarily know that, particularly if they come from an indifferent home background. Schools must teach them right from wrong, as well as why things are right or wrong, and why discipline and a framework are necessary. As the report states, those elements were lacking in the local school to which I referred. All the signs now are that the school has taken fast and major strides to put that right, which I welcome.
This has generally been a constructive debate. I am glad that the improving schools programme has generally received a warm endorsement. It is a practical and flexible approach, designed as a serious solution to a problem that our schools have faced for too long. Achieving improvements in education is essential.
The programme is already a success; it is non-ideological. It was therefore sad that too much of the speech of the hon. Member for Walton wandered from the main thrust of the debate, and was too ideological.
The Labour party remains obsessed with removing opportunity, destroying measures such as the assisted places scheme that bring opportunities to families, and destroying grammar schools that give people choice and diversity. It is obsessed with abolishing nursery school vouchers, and, as we heard, demolishing outside toilets. The people of this country deserve better than to see education returned to an ideological mould. I think that they will have more sense than to fall for that sort of message.
I, too, think that this has been a thoughtful debate. I particularly welcome that in a week when many of us have been involved in specific problems and difficult issues. I also recognise that many Members of Parliament have taken the opportunity to praise the work done in their constituencies and schools. It is a good function of Friday debates to allow local elements and perspectives to be discussed.
In his opening remarks, the Minister seemed to be trying his best to make me feel that I had not left Birmingham on a Friday, but was still in my constituency. The aspects that he mentioned, such as targeting, achievements, learning out of school and baseline assessment, sounded like the primary and secondary school guarantees in Birmingham. As a Birmingham Member of Parliament, I welcome those messages from the Government, in recognition of the work that the city does. For too long at the start of this parliamentary Session, the messages involved nothing but criticism of what was happening in the city. I welcome the fact that Ministers have clearly visited Birmingham, recognised the good work being done there and are learning from it.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) always makes a thoughtful contribution and I always end up disagreeing with him on the same issues. We have sat through the passage of many pieces of legislation. I do not share his perspective on independent schools and how to allocate the necessarily restricted resources in education. I have never underestimated his commitment to raising standards, which he once again made clear today.
It is remarkable that both the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), and the Secretary of State have had to clarify their respective positions on corporal punishment in the space of three hours. I have worked it out that earlier this week the Secretary of State made some comments at 8 am and was corrected at 11 am. Today, the Under-Secretary of State made his comments at 9.30 am and rose to ensure that we all understood them at 12.30 pm. It is also clear that we shall have to have three Lobbies if we are to vote on corporal punishment: one for those who agree with it, another for those who are against it and a third for those Education Ministers who agree with it but are not allowed to vote for it.
There have been many education problems this week and, in a debate in which we have tried to address all the issues, I join with one Conservative Member who said that whether we bring back corporal punishment is not the most important decision currently facing our country and the education system. Discipline, not corporal punishment, is a major issue.
I was particularly pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) talk about developments in his constituency. He managed quite an achievement, which will be recorded in Hansard, in that hon. Members on both sides of the House were eager to join in the acclamation of Councillor Graham Lane, who will read it with pleasure next week.
My hon. Friend also described developments at Little Ilford school. We need to hear more such stories. It sometimes seems as though we cannot overcome the problems in our education system. The success stories cheer us up and give us the certain knowledge that solutions can be found.
My hon. Friend's speech demonstrated that the key to success and improvement lies in working together, but someone has to take the lead. Newham local education authority has done exactly that. I applaud it, and I hope that the good work continues.
I also listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) said about the school where he is to hand out awards next week. We all know the difficulties that such schools face. I am delighted that the school will have the opportunity to celebrate the success of its young people, their teachers and parents. We all wish them a pleasant evening and the school continued success.
As we have learnt this morning, it is undoubted that the achievements of some pupils match the best in the world. They achieve success in a range of curriculum subjects that has not been attempted by previous generations.
The fundamental flaw in the British education system is the same as it always has been—the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom. After 17 years of Conservative government, that gap is getting wider, and it is clear from the contents of the Education Bill published this week that it will widen still further.
Three years ago, when the Minister mentioned the subject, 41.2 per cent. of pupils gained five or more GCSE passes at grades A to C. This year, the percentage has increased to 43.5 per cent. However, three years ago, 7 per cent. of pupils left school with no qualifications. Last year, that figure increased to 8.1 per cent. Nothing has been done to address the yawning gap between the achievers and the under-achievers. The subject of the debate is school improvement. That is undoubtedly one answer, but we must start by being clear about the problem-under—achievement.
I should like to address a particularly alarming sphere of under-achievement in schools and beyond. We face a serious, growing crisis in the massive under-achievement of too many boys and young men. There is a widening chasm between the achievement of girls and of boys. I understand the danger of generalising and I recognise and applaud the hard work and achievement of boys in many schools, but the evidence is overwhelming.
In the 1995 national curriculum assessment test, seven-year-old girls out-performed boys in every subject. They continue to outperform them at 11 and 14, most markedly in the all-important subject of English language. Just over 60 per cent. of girls achieved a higher grade in GCSE English language compared with just over 40 per cent. of boys. Last year, 36 per cent. more boys than girls left school with no qualifications. More boys than girls are not entered for examinations.
The bad news is that, this year, the gap has widened still further. New figures compiled by the National Consortium for Examination Results and released today show that, this year, 34.7 per cent. of boys and 45 per cent. of girls achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A to C. On average, girls are leading boys at GCSE in all subjects by 10.4 points. Last year the gap was 10 points. The situation is getting worse.
That difference between what boys achieve and what girls achieve matters. The tragedy is that, in the years during which it has grown, the gap has come to matter more and more. It may not have mattered as much a generation ago, but it matters a great deal now.
The world has changed. Employment patterns have changed. Family patterns and structures have changed. Someone who does not achieve qualifications is not likely to get a job. The message is simple: in the 1990s, to earn. a person must learn. Should we be surprised, given the massive under-achievement of boys in schools, that three out of four of the 18 to 24-year-olds claiming benefit for up to 12 months are male? One in three of the boys under 25 in our inner cities are out of work. One in three of all the unemployed are males under 25.
Those statistics carry a personal tragedy for all those young men and their families. The consequences of those boys failing to reach their full potential affects not just them, but all of us and our communities and society. It is clear that under-achievement can lead to problems in the classroom and to disruptive and anti-social behaviour.
It is well known that exclusions have increased threefold in the past five years—that figure is often bandied about—but do we realise that nine out of 10 of those excluded at primary school are boys, as are eight out of 10 of those excluded at secondary school? Every day, those working in and with schools spend valuable time and money picking up the pieces after routine acts of indiscipline and disruptive behaviour, most of which are carried out by boys. We all know that classroom indiscipline often costs fellow pupils most of all. It is costing boys and girls their main education chance.
That pattern of antisocial behaviour carries on from school into adulthood. For every one young woman in her early 20s who offends against the law, there are 11 males who also offend. Boys who fail at school and fail to find jobs can become increasingly marginalised from mainstream society. We all know that the changes in family structures and in the pattern of families have marginalised some young men even further. We have to face up to the fact that an increasing number of young men have effectively ceased to be part of mainstream society.
Hon. Members from all parties talk about social cohesion and regenerating our communities. Although we may have different ideas in different parties, we all recognise that we have a problem. It is clear that, to regenerate our communities and recreate a sense of social cohesion, we must tackle head on the disaffection of boys and young men. Education is the key to tackling that disaffection. Too many boys succumb to a group culture in which the dominant values are that there is no point in learning, that it is cool to truant and that it is okay to misbehave.
I do not pretend that the answers to the problems that I have raised are easy, or even that the causes of the crisis are clear, but we must now begin to tackle the problem of under-achievement by boys, and we must tackle it head on.
Boys and their families must be made aware of the consequences of a changing labour market and changing family patterns. Boys have to be better equipped to respond to the challenges they face and they have to understand the necessity of their maintaining a commitment to learning as a lifelong process. To earn one must learn, and boys will not end their under-achievement until every school, family and community makes them understand that that is the motto as we approach the millennium. Schools are central in supporting boys and helping them to meet the challenge.
Today, Labour is putting forward a 10-point plan which we believe will make a start in turning the tide of boys' under-achievement. We must support schools in boosting boys' literacy skills. They are behind in literacy skills even at the age of seven, yet literacy skills are crucial for success in the rest of the curriculum. That is why we have announced that we will introduce and develop literacy summer schools to ensure that all pupils are given every chance of entering secondary school with a level of literacy that will at the least enable them to continue learning.
I agree with the hon. Member for Beckenham that nobody can learn in an ill-disciplined environment, and that boys' behaviour tends to be worse than that of girls. That is why the whole debate about school discipline is crucial and central to stopping the under-achievement of boys. We want to support schools in developing discipline policies that are clearly understood and adhered to, and in ensuring that there are consequences for breaking them. The rules must be understood by pupils, parents and teachers.
Research shows that boys are more ready to use information technology for school work than they are to use traditional methods of learning. That underlines the importance of Labour's decision to place the development of information technology in schools high on the agenda.
However, schools cannot turn the tide of boys' under-achievement by themselves. Some individual schools have already shown that mentoring and building partnerships with business can raise the standards of achievement. Another good news story is that Deptford Green school in London has developed a partnership with SBC Warburg and with IPC magazines whereby 100 pupils are paired with employees from the two businesses. Pupils are given the chance to see what can be achieved. They have their horizons broadened more than might otherwise be the case in the communities in which they live. They have met good male role models, and the result is that unemployment has dropped by half among the group of boys who have been mentored compared with boys at the same school who have not been part of the mentoring programme.
School pupils spend only 15 per cent. of their time in school; never let us forget that. What happens to them in their homes and communities in the 85 per cent. of the time that they are not in school is crucial for their educational success. This summer, 6,000 youngsters attended Birmingham's university of the first age, a university for secondary-age pupils which takes place during the long summer holidays. It was a resounding success. One Birmingham school has commented on the full voluntary attendance during the summer holidays achieved by its boys although some of the same boys have a patchy attendance record at their own schools. Many under-achieving boys do remarkably well in structured out-of-school learning opportunities. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South will see, through the Saturday schools that he is about to start, that the same lesson is learned there. Labour wants to encourage the development of more such centres.
Parents also play a crucial role in raising standards, which is why we have long promoted the idea of home-school contracts. Our economy has changed and will continue to change. Family patterns will inevitably change over time. I do not hold the Government entirely responsible for those changes, but I do hold them responsible for failing to react to a situation that is serious for us all.
The Government have failed to recognise that there is a crisis in the under-achievement of boys. There has been no planned collection of statistics, no Government analysis of what is going wrong, and no strategy from Ministers on a way forward. There is a deafening silence from them on what is becoming a learning and a social crisis. That is what I hold the Government responsible for—failing to act while the chasm between boys' and girls' achievement has grown even wider.
A decade or more ago, people recognised that there was a problem with the achievement level of girls, and the opportunity for girls and women. So much progress has been made because people took the time and trouble to try to understand what was going wrong and put it right. We need now to address the issues affecting boys' under-achievement in an equally determined way.
The very future of our society depends on reconnecting those young men and boys to the world of work and the culture of education and training. That is especially true for those of them who live in the most economically and socially disadvantaged areas. We have to restore to them their sense of belonging and identity and their self-esteem. We have to give them hope and encourage in them self-reliance.
A generation ago, when we left school, certainly when our parents left school, able young boys and those who worked hard went into a job with a clear career pattern. They sought and achieved promotion; they were assured of security and self-esteem. Less able boys or those who did not have academic opportunities used to fall into work because manual jobs were available. Those jobs offered security and self-respect too. It has all changed. So many of the traditional rites of passage into adulthood have gone for this generation of young men. Too many boys are not adapting to that change, too many schools are not addressing their needs, too little lead has been given by central Government.
There are solutions; there are areas of good practice; but we are failing a significant number of boys. Labour will work with schools, parents and the wider community to begin to meet the challenge of raising the expectations and achievement of boys. That challenge has been ignored for far too long, but, frankly, we ignore it any longer at our peril.
With the leave of the House, I shall begin my summing up of the debate by agreeing with the opening comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris); this has been a good debate. I realise that that will probably mean that it will be condemned by observers and others who read of our proceedings as having no meat, but that was not my impression, having sat in the Chamber for some four and a half hours. What I mean by a good debate is that it went into the sort of issues that rightly concern not only hon. Members but parents, teachers and everyone in the education system. In fairness to those who have spoken, I shall spend most of my time commenting on their speeches.
First, I shall spend a couple of minutes continuing the theme that I set out at the beginning of the debate. The improving schools programme has created powerful partnerships between people with a common aim. That common aim, as we have heard in several excellent speeches, is to raise the standards in schools for all our young people.
The success of the programme speaks for itself. In this coming year, as I said earlier, the Government will continue to help schools in their efforts to achieve higher standards not only in the vital skills required by the national curriculum, which in itself has been instrumental in raising achievement, but in all aspects of schools' work, especially those that contribute to the fostering of skills, good behaviour and values, which are so important if young people are to succeed in society and work. Most importantly, the improving schools programme will help each school to re-examine the processes of teaching and learning. The programme will continue to seek ways in which it can support schools in the most important task of helping teachers to raise the achievement of pupils.
The programme is popular—popularity is not something that is inevitably associated with every Government action—because it is a set of initiatives that work. It draws on the best practice in our schools, practice which is innovative and challenging and which has the clear objective of helping every young person to succeed to the best of his or her ability. Sometimes, that ability exceeds all our expectations, as I am sure it did in one or two cases in the school in Birmingham to which I referred earlier.
The programme is about everyone doing their best. It is about year-on-year improvement and recognising and encouraging the talents of teachers and their ability to motivate and engage pupils in learning. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) rightly said, the programme is about celebrating the success of pupils. We have sought today to celebrate a bit of success without getting starry-eyed about the challenges that we still face. I judge that that is the right way to approach the subject.
Schools have shown that they can set, meet and, in some cases, exceed challenging targets. The best schools and, yes, local education authorities, have always recognised that the responsibility for improvement lies predominantly at school level. The programme will continue to identify ways in which it can provide appropriate support and, in some cases, challenges for schools in raising those expectations.
I shall now turn to the specific speeches, kicking off with the contribution from the Front Bench by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). He was bound to mention class sizes. I do not want to spend all my time at the Dispatch Box talking about that subject. but not for the first time I shall re-emphasise where we agree and disagree.
No one has ever suggested that class size is irrelevant to the delivery of quality education, but all the reports—including, incidentally, the recent report commissioned by the National Association of Head Teachers, which drew on all previous reports—have confirmed, first, that class size is especially significant in the early years. That is common ground between us. Secondly, the reports confirm that there is no clear pattern in the later years, especially one that would lead one to presume that class size was more important than the generality of excellence and improvement in standards.
That is not to say that class size is unimportant. Indeed, if we were to swap figures, I could say truthfully that there has been a significant fall in the number of pupils in large classes of more than 35 during the 17 years of this Government, but that is just a statistic. The key issue, on which I am trying to extend agreement across the House, is whether, if all classes contained fewer pupils than some notional figure—and none was any larger—education would be better transformed than by tackling teaching standards. I do not believe that and if it is put like that I am sure that most, if not all, my hon. Friends at least would agree.
I shall not talk much about assisted places. Several of my hon. Friends did so clearly, and I agree, in particular. with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) who said aptly that the Opposition have yet to get across a winning argument that says why it would be right to stop pupils from poor backgrounds enjoying quality education that they would otherwise be unable to enjoy.
The hon. Member for Walton raised the specific issue of St. Francis Xavier school and I am aware of the allegations that have been made. I understand that the chief executive of the Funding Agency for Schools for England has written to the hon. Gentleman and set out the conclusions of the auditors. I assure him that the letter that he is awaiting is imminent, and he will receive it shortly.
The hon. Gentleman also referred, as did the hon. Member for Yardley, to the latest Labour policy on summer schools. I am not here to poke fun and I am anxious, as I hope I have demonstrated today, to consider any way in which we can raise standards, but I think that I am entitled to say that the key issue is getting education right in school time in schools. If we can do that, the Opposition—at least privately, if not at the Dispatch Box—must surely recognise that it will obviate the need for such an initiative.
The Minister is right to say that standards in schools must be raised. Does he accept that the great success of summer schools is based not only on what they achieve by the work that they do with the children, but on the fact that pupils are more motivated when they return to school? If he is interested in summer schools, will he ask the Department to undertake research into their effect on children when they return to school? If such schools are a success, will he make resources available to support them?
With a proviso, because my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor beams in on me every time I mention resources. This is a serious point, so I am happy to confirm that I will consider what is achieved by summer schools. Whatever is engendered at a summer school would better be engendered in school at the outset. I do not think that we disagree about that. That has been achieved by many schools, including those facing challenging circumstances. The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) made that point in his very good speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam made a very good speech. She pointed out that the area that she represents—we have a shared knowledge of the area—contains a significant number of good, grant-maintained schools, including non-selective, grant-maintained schools. She told the hon. Member for Bath—although she did not convince him—that such schools had better results and were more popular with parents. That initiative has been successful and popular, albeit not with the hon. Member for Bath.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam was one of several of my hon. Friends who spoke rightly and properly about the importance of discipline—as did Opposition Members: forgive me, I was not suggesting that we are divided on this issue. She welcomed the measures in the new Education Bill. She made reference to the SCAA consultation document—it was not the first time, and I am sure that it will not be the last. We all look forward to the results of those consultations.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) explained that he could not stay because of a private difficulty. As usual, he made a wide-ranging speech that touched on everything from nursery vouchers to minimum space regulations. He spent quite a bit of time talking about the Bill. Knowing him as we all know him, and loving him as we all love him, we know that we will hear more from him on all those subjects during the next debate on education. He is an assiduous attender, and it is right that I pay tribute to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) welcomed the measures on discipline. I agree with his call for a period of calm in the media on the broad reporting of events at Manton school and at the Ridings school. I know that they are newsworthy issues, and I am not suggesting—even if I had the power—that censorship should apply. Those two schools have had their till of reports and investigations in the past few weeks. They will shortly need—if they cannot have it now—a period of calm to allow teachers and authorities to pick up the reins and work things through. I agree with my hon. Friend on that.
My hon. Friend also underscored the success of grant-maintained schools, based on the experience of schools in his constituency. As a Minister, I am expected to say on these occasions that I note his well-argued pleas in respect not of one but two schools: one for sixth form status, and the other for technology college status. I have no doubt that he will continue to be in touch with me on those matters.
The hon. Member for Bath spoke about value for money in grant-maintained schools. In its report, the National Audit Office found that overall standards of financial management in the 80 schools visited were sound, and that there was real concern in the sector io improve value for money. The two cases that the hon. Gentleman cited are recognised as isolated examples. The impropriety identified in the report concerned internal issues that will be dealt with by the governing body. I understand that in both cases the governing bodies have now taken effective steps to resolve the problems.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not advancing those cases as part of a general attack on grant-maintained schools because, as he and I are aware, stewardship problems can arise not only in those schools but in other forms of school, and we would be wise to accept the report and the answers that I have given.
The hon. Gentleman has repeated the allegations about nursery vouchers and Group 4 that he made a couple of days ago when we discussed education during our debate on the Queen's Speech. As he knows, Group 4 has been appointed to handle the administration, which means the awarding of contracts, but I remind him and other hon. Members that Group 4 is not involved in any way with assessing the educational quality of nursery providers. By definition, all those appointed as inspectors must be appropriately qualified. I make that point because there is a danger that the hon. Gentleman's comments may be taken out of context.
I entirely accept what the Minister has said, but my continuing concern is caused by the fact that, as I understand it, the people who assess who the inspection team should be and who should be responsible for the inspections have had no experience either of education or of inspections. That seems bizarre, and I would welcome a comment from the Minister about it.
I believe that what the hon. Gentleman has said is not fully right, but rather than rummage through my papers at this stage, I shall write to him with an answer.
The hon. Gentleman asked about resources. Having said at the outset that I would not say much about resources, I shall not break my self-imposed ordinance, except to say that, whether we think about national funding since 1979 and the increase of nearly 50 per cent. in spending per pupil, or the priority that has been given to education compared with all other areas of Government spending over the past year, our record is not one of which I am ashamed.
However, clearly—indeed, transparently—as has been mentioned during the debate, in several parts of the country mere higher funding has not achieved quality improvements. That is precisely why I sought to recognise resources but then to say that ultimately they were less important than teaching standards.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned governors, and I shall look forward to further comments from him as the views are developed. I think that governors throughout the country have responded tremendously both to local management of schools and to grant-maintained schools. The fact that one or two exceptions are in the news at the moment does not in any way reduce my belief in governors' success.
I discovered today that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) is, like me, the son of an architect, and I shall echo the comments made from the Opposition Front Bench by saying that my hon. Friend made his usual thoughtful speech. He rightly stressed teacher training. I shall not now take him through all the measures that we have introduced since 1984 but, as he knows, in 1984 we introduced the first national criteria for all initial teacher training, and we have subsequently sought to tighten and improve standards over the years, concentrating on both initial and continuing teacher training, because they go to the heart of standards in our schools.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-East, who is another member of the former council leaders club, gave an excellent constituency speech. I join him in congratulating the many improving schools he named and the people who have played a part in that process. I am interested to learn that, as the hon. Gentleman said, Newham was ahead of the game in publishing results and setting targets. That makes me wonder what all the fuss was about a few years ago—although of course that was before the hon. Gentleman arrived on the scene in the House.
I am told that Langdon school, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is twinned with my school effectiveness division, and that staff and pupil visits to the Department are common. I am also advised that those people are very well informed about the improving schools programme, and I am sure that that must be true.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) delivered an excellent speech—I am running out of adjectives—with scarcely a note. He highlighted what is happening on the net, which is very exciting. In his comments on failing schools he recognised that through the formal regime that we have put in place schools can and will improve. I know that my hon. Friends recognise that; I hope that in time I will convince even Opposition Members. I congratulate my hon. Friend on playing his part in assisting the recovery of the school that had fallen on hard times in his patch.
Finally, the hon. Member for Yardley always gives a good speech, and today's was another one, if I may say so without damaging her promotion prospects. Of course I did not agree with all her comments and, although I am looking for common ground, I entirely reject her claim that nothing has been done to tackle under-achievement. That goes to the heart of the debate.
Until a problem is identified, it will not be tackled. Under this Government we have introduced testing at 7, 11, 14 and 16 years and publicised the results. That has brought the problem to the attention of the public and the education experts. The inspection of schools, linked with the identification of good and not so good teaching, will further assist in determining where other improvements are necessary.
We can and must target under-achievement, in inner-urban boys or any other group to which the hon. Lady referred. I could not disagree with her comments, and we will shortly publish statistics from the performance tables showing the gender breakdown of the 1995–96 results. Like her, I hope that the many schools where that is a particular problem will tackle it using the measures that we have made available.
In conclusion, I acknowledge, as I did in my opening speech, that we all expect a great deal from our schools, teachers and governors. We expect a great deal from parents and pupils in helping and supporting schools and raising expectations and achievement. However, we owe a great deal to the many excellent teachers and head teachers throughout the land, and I pay tribute to them again. Through the improving schools programme, the Government will ensure that they are helped to provide only the very best of education.