Orders of the Day — School Standards and Framework Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:51 pm on 22nd December 1997.

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Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 8:51 pm, 22nd December 1997

I am most grateful to have the chance to participate in this debate because education and school standards are key issues for my constituency.

One of the advantages of speaking late in the debate is that one can sit and listen to everything that is said by the Opposition. By and large, their contributions have been marked by two things. First, they have talked endlessly about divisiveness and structures. We have heard a great deal from them about selection, grant-maintained schools, assisted places and the independent sector. In fact, they have shown every sign of wanting the divisiveness and conflict which so marred discussion of education in the late 1980s and early 1990s to continue.

The second matter about which Opposition Members have spoken endlessly is privilege and how to ensure that quality education is retained as a privilege for the few and not made a right for the majority of children.

The Bill sets out a framework that will get away from the conflict that caused so many problems in our education service in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It sets out the framework in which everyone who is involved in the education service can work in partnership. That partnership, which will involve different types of schools, including grant-maintained and even independent schools, as well as local education authorities and the community, including the business community, will operate for the benefit of children.

The Bill comes after exhaustive consultation in which all those partners and more looked in detail at how they can best unlock the potential of children in our schools. They considered why children across the range of abilities do better in some schools than in others; what makes a good school; and the best practice that enables children to achieve. They also studied how to extend that best practice so that all children get the best added value out of their schooling.

Those considerations lead to the second aim of the Bill, which is to extend such educational advantages to all children. One of the most dramatic measures in the Bill, and probably one of the most difficult to achieve, is that designed to lower class sizes for children in those early years. Let me cite an example of the way in which that change will transform children's expectations at school. In my LEA in Northamptonshire about 3,000 children in early years education are taught in classes of more than 30. They will see the benefits of the Bill. It is worth noting that the assisted places scheme in Northamptonshire benefits just 253 children, at a cost of £949,000, which is enough to employ upwards of 50 teachers. I have no doubt where the public would rather see that sum of close on £1 million spent.

We have also heard the Opposition talk critically about some of the specific practice measures in the Bill, and I shall single out one: home-school contracts. They are extremely important and, in a certain sense, they fill one of the missing links in the education service. Where there is real disadvantage—I speak as a former leader of Southwark council where many of the children were extremely disadvantaged—one characteristic is that parents are frequently not involved in the school, or are hostile to it. Getting individual parents involved in their children's education will be a key element.

I wish to deal with two points of advantage and disadvantage. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) is shouting, "Cheltenham, Cheltenham, Cheltenham." I shall take him on, because I think that all three of us ex-Cheltenham ladies prove that, if a child with reasonable ability is placed in a school with small class sizes, well qualified teachers, good books, good equipment and lots of educational opportunities, he or she will obtain good exam results. That says nothing about the educational achievements of schools; all it tells us is how rich the parents are and how money could buy privilege in Tory Britain. The hon. Gentleman should not throw Cheltenham at me.

A further point relating to disadvantage perhaps applies particularly to Opposition Members. The pattern of disadvantage is changing. When I was at school, people used to talk about improving girls' achievements; now, a much bigger problem is what to do about under-achieving boys. In Northamptonshire in 1977, at key stage 1, in reading and writing, 85 per cent. of girls reached the expected levels, but only 76 per cent. of boys; at key stage 2, the figures were 66 per cent. for girls and 51 per cent. for boys; at GCSE, 46.9 per cent. of girls obtained five or more GCSE grades A to C and only 34.8 per cent. of boys achieved the same results. That is a growing problem that schools will have to address; perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards will say something about that when he replies.

I welcome the consensual tone of the Bill. I welcome the fact that we have allowed for the diversity in the school structure that will enable all schools, including church schools and the new foundation schools to maintain a role and to make a contribution to children's achievement. I welcome the obligation to provide school meals. When Northamptonshire was under Conservative control, the Conservatives scrapped the school meals service. As well as disadvantaging children who came from poor homes, the policy was bitterly resented by working mothers.

I also welcome the recognition that there must be a proper role for the local education authority. Above all, I welcome the improvement in achievement and school performance which I believe that the Bill will bring for our school children in the future.