Secondary Schools

Oral Answers to Questions — Education and Employment – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15 March 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire 12:00, 15 March 2001

What plans he has to raise standards in secondary schools. [152551]

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

The recent Green Paper—" Schools: Building on Success"—sets out the Government's vision for transforming secondary education. Building on our successful reforms at primary level, the programme will boost the achievements of 11 to 14-year-olds; promote diversity so that each school has its own distinct ethos; narrow the achievement gap by targeting disadvantaged areas, under-performing groups of pupils and low-performing schools; and create a system that responds effectively to the talents and aspirations of individuals.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Our party has historically championed inclusion and combated exclusion. Why cannot investment in diversity in secondary education take place within the comprehensive system, not alongside it? If yet more specialist schools select some pupils, will not that produce secondary moderns, not modernised secondaries? Is it still standards, not structures, that matter?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that our party has raised standards for a range of people—historically, in ending the 11-plus and rigid selection, and, more recently, in raising literacy and numeracy standards and achievement at GCSE—but if we want to continue to do so, we must modernise. There is diversity in the comprehensive system. Most specialist schools are comprehensives, and many of them serve areas of great disadvantage. They can select up to 10 per cent. of students by aptitude—only 7 per cent. of schools do so—but the crucial point is that our party has always wanted to raise standards in every school.

All schools in my hon. Friend's constituency in Leicestershire and throughout the country will benefit from the specialist school movement, because 30 per cent. of their funds have to be used in partnership with other secondary schools and primary schools. Our vision for 2006 is not only to allow more that 40 per cent. of our secondary schools to become specialist schools, but to ensure that every secondary school in the country works in partnership with them, so that we can continue what we have done throughout our history and, more recently, in the past four years: raise standards for every child in every school, in every country, no matter what the label on the school's door says.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Is not the truth of the matter that the Government are acutely embarrassed by the Secretary of State's comments in the Green Paper, in which he says that only four out of 10 schools will be specialist? On 12 February, I said: If specialist schools are good enough for four out of 10 schools, why are they not good enough for all …?"—[Official Report, 12 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 28.] It is worth the House hearing what the Prime Minister said in a letter, which I received today in reply to one that I sent to him. He says: As you state, a large proportion of comprehensives, particularly those participating in the specialist schools programme already have strong leadership and a distinct ethos … This Government wants to see this extended to all schools, so that they may all achieve a strong reputation … Does that mean that the policy of the Liberal Democrats and the Prime Minister is at odds with that of the Secretary of State?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask a question that agrees with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, he can use his time in that way, but let us put the issue in context. The hon. Gentleman will remember that, before the general election, only grant-maintained schools were allowed to apply for specialist status. Just over 100 schools were specialist schools in 1997. We have transformed the position and, through excellence in cities, we have now made sure that specialist school status, and what that means, is available to some of the schools in the most challenging areas that were deliberately excluded from the programme of the previous Government.

The hon. Gentleman may be in the business of objecting, but we are in the business of delivering. Delivering means that we plan the expansion of our programme. In every single year since the Government came to power, we have allocated more money for specialist schools and we have changed the rules so that they have to share that money with other schools in their neighbourhood. Of course, future Labour Governments want to build on that. Our vision is to have every school that is so able to play to its own specialism within the diversity of the school system.

We must not fall into the trap of saying that the only schools that can specialise are those that have a specialist school label. Other schools throughout the country have specialisms and they work to them. We shall carefully expand the system and make sure that we do so in the best interests of all schools.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education Sub-committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have been successful in driving up standards in schools only because we have an increasing number of the best body of teachers in the world? However, will she join me in deploring any action by teachers' unions that would damage the possibility of students receiving a decent standard of education, and will she also deplore the annual charade that teachers go through before the Easter conferences? It damages the reputation, esteem and prestige that so many of us have been trying to build up for the teaching profession.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

I agree with my hon. Friend that we have the finest body of teachers, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made that point clear at the last annual conference. All the increases in standards that politicians talk about are delivered by teachers and classroom assistants working with parents and children in the 24,000 schools throughout the country. We owe them a debt of gratitude for what they are doing for our children and the future of the nation. We all have a responsibility to shout loud and clear what a good profession we have and what an increasingly attractive profession it is to join. Therefore, I agree with my hon. Friend that teachers who do not stay in classrooms to teach children do nothing for the children, do nothing to raise standards and, indeed, send a false message of what the profession is about. I know that teachers go into teaching to teach and to support children. I have every confidence that they will continue to do so and that they will not take industrial action.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Perhaps the Liberal Democrats' spokesman should not waste the time of the House by quoting the words of the Prime Minister, bearing in mind the phrase that was made public by the former chief inspector of schools, who said that

there is an inverse relationship between what Tony wants and what Tony gets". Given that Ministers now see selection as the way to improve standards in bog-standard comprehensives, is it not time for them to accept that they should drop the Government's hostility to schools that already select and deliver high standards? Is it not time to scrap the grammar school ballot regulations, which the right hon. Lady knows have cost £300,000 of taxpayers' money, achieved nothing and left schools and parents throughout the country facing uncertainty?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

There is a centralising tendency in the Conservative party. We have given the final decision on admission arrangements in selective areas to parents. The hon. Gentleman wants to take that power away from parents and put it back in the hands of central Government. We are busy getting on with raising standards in 24,000 schools. There is no more selection than there was before 1997, and our policy is to let the people, whose children's lives will most be affected by admission arrangements in selective areas, continue to make the decision. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman would deny parents the right to make that decision.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Labour, Staffordshire Moorlands

Will my hon. Friend congratulate two schools in my constituency? Biddulph high recently received a truancy busting award, and Leek high used the £10,000 so generously donated by the Britannia building society to enhance computer facilities available to design and technology students, which has encouraged a range of students to stay on and to become enthusiastic about careers in both design and technology.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

I had the pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend's constituency, where I saw the high quality of schools and the commitment of their teachers. She highlights the commitment of individual schools to the diversity agenda and gives an excellent example of how schools can use a range of Government initiatives and sources of income to create diversity. It is especially pleasing that the children who will benefit from those initiatives are not just those who attend the schools that she named, but those who attend neighbouring schools as well. That spirit of partnership and the spreading of good practice is what our vision for the future of education is about.