I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate a debate on setting our schools free, and I hope that it will be conducted in a spirit of inquiry and thoughtfulness. I am a member of the Education and Skills Committee and I am constantly struck by the degree of cross-party consensus and co-operation that I find there. I hope that our debate will be conducted in a similar spirit.
I do not wish to score party political points. Indeed, I see opposite me some of the Labour Members with whom I voted on the Education and Inspections Bill. We joined together in the Lobby to get that Bill through the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out; it is indeed the case. I hope that the Minister and other Members will join together if not in the Lobby, then in this Chamber today, to find some consensus on how to improve education.
It needs to be said at the outset that not all schools with independence are good and that not all schools that conform to the micro-detail of Government diktat are necessarily bad. Far from it. We need to be careful not to assume that independent automatically necessarily means better.
I acknowledge the contribution of my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, whose most excellent pamphlet on setting our schools free largely inspired the debate.
In office, political parties are inclined to argue that things are generally better than they are; in opposition, they are sometimes tempted to argue that things are worse than they sometimes are. My criticisms of the education system are not directed at any one Government. I want to make a broader point about failures in our education system that I believe are a product of a centralist system that has been in place for 20 or 30 years, if not longer.
The following facts prove that there is a problem in our education system. A quarter of 11-year-olds cannot read or write sufficiently well to allow them to tackle the secondary school curriculum. One in five school leavers are functionally illiterate and innumerate. The state has supposedly been looking after them and educating them for nine years, but it has failed in its most basic task.
Many school leavers arrive at university without the basic literary skills that they need for their coursework. That failure has been masked by extraordinary grade inflation. For example, between 1992 and 2002, when Governments of both parties were in office, the proportion of A grades awarded at A-level rose from 13 per cent. to nearly double that figure.
Those are the facts. However, we can debate the reason for that failure. I contend that the education system is failing because of over-centralisation and the quango state that administers our education system. That system is run at the behest of remote quangos and remote elites—schools adjudicators, curriculum and qualifications authorities and unaccountable bureaucrats in the local education authorities. Remote elites make decisions; local pupils, schools and parents take the rap. That is how our education system is run—almost regardless of which Minister holds office.
The quango state has run education not only badly in terms of output, but incredibly inefficiently. It has been estimated that about 45 per cent. of education spend does not go to the schools, but is sucked up by the education quango establishment. Those quangos—for instance, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, with its plush offices in London—always seem to have enough money for such things. Regardless of the fact that there might not be enough teachers in the classroom, local education authorities never seem to run out of bureaucrats.
The quango state absorbs an extraordinarily large amount of money that ought to be going to schools. The national curriculum is devised by distant experts. Targets and guidelines are set and imposed on schools. That process began in the early 1990s, if not before, but in recent years it has turned into an avalanche. Centralism is the problem. If we are honest, we will admit that Governments of all parties since the 1970s have thought that they could run education better from the centre.
Some on my side of the House might be tempted to mention grant-maintained schools. They might have been decentralising, but whatever freedoms the schools gained from their LEAs were offset by greater scrutiny and accountability through the national curriculum and targets set by central Government. Grant-maintained schools show how not to set schools free, as the mechanisms for further central control remained in place.
Instead, we need a bold new approach to decentralisation to devolve not so much just to town halls, but directly to parents, pupils and the schools themselves. We need to take power and responsibility away from the quango state and devolve it downwards directly to the users.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate; I know how passionately he feels about the subject. Each year, we all have constituents who are heartbroken to find that their child or children cannot go to the school they wish to go to because the local education authority has not provided enough places in that school. Does he agree that, in a radical overhaul of our school system, we must ensure that good schools can expand?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I and many other Members have been approached an extraordinary number of times by parents who cannot understand why they are not allowed to exercise effective choice because of arbitrary boundaries and catchment areas. The system is wrong, and it needs to be changed.
We need to set schools free, and we could begin by allowing schools to control their own admissions policies. We should allow schools to have charitable status—what we might call trust status—and the freedom to set their own budgets. I shall say in a moment how we need to reform funding of the education system.
A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman suggested that a characteristic of an ideal system would be parents being able to get their children into the school of their choice, but he went on to speak of schools having their own admission criteria. Would not that mean schools selecting children rather than the other way round?
I believe that if we gave schools the ability to manage their own admissions, in a few instances safeguards would need to be built in. For example, in a remote rural village where there was no effective choice, safeguards might be needed to ensure that no child was left out of the system and that no child was left behind. However, the number of cases in which such safeguards would have to apply would be few and far between. In most cases—indeed, overwhelmingly—if schools were allowed to set their own admissions criteria, few children would be excluded. There would always be a school for them. A school different from the one they attend at the moment might have to be chosen, but there would be effective choice.
Constituencies such as mine have a number of secondary schools, and if we were to scrap the arbitrary catchment areas, we would allow people a choice that they are currently denied.
I am a governor of a secondary school in Taunton. We recently had to appoint a new head teacher, and I was amazed by how little discretion the governors had in deciding the salary. Drawing on the point that the hon. Gentleman was making about allowing head teachers and governing bodies more budgetary discretion, should they have more freedom to, for example, pay or reward a distinguished teacher of French who has made the school admired throughout the area? A straitjacket seems to have been imposed on head teachers, which makes it difficult for them to reward excellence—and, for that matter, to allow greater advances in other parts of the school.
The hon. Gentleman—given his comments, I am tempted to call him my hon. Friend—is absolutely right. He has given a good example of why greater flexibility and freedom for schools to set their own budgets, hire staff and set the terms and conditions for doing so could benefit individual schools.
The idea that we should determine such things centrally is wrong. As part of the package of independence, we should give schools the ability to hire staff—and, indeed, to fire them. With one or two safeguards, as teased out by David Taylor, schools could manage their own budgets, determine their own admissions criteria, and set the terms and conditions for hiring their staff.
Schools would also have the freedom to set their own curricula. On balance, we have come to the point of needing to advocate the abolition of the national curriculum. Some will be surprised to hear that, but my view is that the national curriculum—the nationalisation of the curriculum—has not imposed the greater rigour and higher standards that it was supposed to impose. In fact, in many instances it has done the opposite of what its architects initially intended. If schools were allowed to set their own curricula, those of us on the centre right would be reassured that we were likely to get a more "small c" conservative curriculum. There would be diversity and choice; people could shop around for a school with a curriculum that they wished for.
What would happen if all the schools in a certain county or area decided not to adopt the kind of curriculum that parents want, and their head teachers decided to adopt a very progressive and dumbed down curriculum? What would happen to parents and children in such areas, which would offer no effective choice of a high-quality school?
I cannot think of a single county in the country in which that would be the case if there were effective school independence and parental choice. However, I can think of a number of counties in which an extremely progressive curriculum is imposed with almost zero parental choice and almost zero freedom for schools to do differently. Under my scheme, we would get choice and a conservative outcome in terms of the content of the curriculum. Under the current system, there is a very non-conservative curriculum, and there is very little that parents can do about that.
I am not here to argue for a return to grant-maintained schools. There were errors to do with the centralised system of funding in the grant-maintained system. Nor am I here to defend the local education authorities; under my scheme, I would be happy to see certain aspects of the LEAs wither away.
Instead of centralising how local government manages its education budgets, we should try another, non-centralising way—a third way, if you like—of devolving control over school budgets. We could give every parent in the country the legal right to request and receive, in non-cash form, their share of their child's local authority budget allocation. That share could be weighted by age, geography or indicators of social deprivation to ensure greater equity—I admit that.
Allowing parents the legal right to request and receive their child's share of the local authority budget could be done simply and would ensure that there was effective choice, which is lacking under the current system. It could be done through a relatively simple, straightforward two-line Bill in Parliament and judicial fiat. The courts could ensure that it took effect.
What I suggest is not the same as some hideously complicated, centrally run, top-down national voucher scheme. Imagine the potential for IT failure under such a scheme; one has only to consider the history of some of the big Government IT projects to see what might happen. Nor do we need a new funding quango. That would enable future Governments of left or right to attach conditions to schools or parents for receipt of the funding. A simple legal right for parents to request and receive their share of local authority funding would solve the problem.
In looking back at the history of the national curriculum and of a centralised system of funding for grant-maintained schools, we see clearly a lesson that we on the centre right need to learn: rigour and higher standards cannot be imposed top-down, but will come about through being driven from the bottom up. To ensure that that happens, we need not only to set schools free and give them greater independence, but to give parents effective choice.
I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's argument. Will he outline the difference between what he advocates and the pupil's passport, which was his party's policy when he was elected at the general election?
The pupil's passport is quite a centralising, complicated, formulaic measure. I must be frank: I never entirely understood its mechanisms, and I am not a big advocate of the big Government IT projects that such a scheme would necessarily entail. Given the history of the passport scheme at the Home Office, I do not think that a scheme with similar IT complications is called for in education.
The hon. Gentleman has a well deserved reputation for being refreshingly open and frank. Will he comment on a policy that his party has promoted for much of the time since 1997? His party has not yet put the policy of having a grammar school in every town into the grave with a stake through its heart. Does he think that that policy would be popular with people and parents?
I began this debate by saying that I would try to bring a thoughtful spirit of inquiry to the Chamber, and I hope that we shall retain that.
When people talk about grammar schools, emotions quite often take over and the debate starts to generate more heat than light. I am not opposed to the extension of grammar schools, of which there are about 167 in the country, but I am much more interested in having a debate about education that would improve the quality of life of all our children in all schools in the country. We need a debate far wider than an exclusive discussion of grammar schools. By all means, we can debate those schools, but I deliberately phrased the title of the debate so that it focused on the interests of the many, not the few.
It is important that any policy should be assessed according to the impact that it might have on the most vulnerable. I feel that strongly, given my experience with children with special educational needs in my constituency. If we are to give schools greater independence and parents effective power, we need to ask ourselves about the impact that that might have on the more vulnerable in our education system.
For me, the key critical test, first and foremost, is whether such children would be better off. We could come up with a system that ensured that. Too often, the statementing process to which those with special educational needs are subjected has put vulnerable individuals at the mercy of education experts. Such children have been more dependent on remote experts and, on occasion, have suffered as a result.
The immoral policy of enforced inclusion and the immoral closure of specialist schools, such as the Leas school in Clacton in my constituency, which help those with special educational needs, are further manifestations of what happens when schools, parents and pupils surrender their independence to experts happy to dictate what they believe is right for other people's children.
By reforming the statementing process, we could ensure that greater independence meant that children with special educational needs were better off. Such children's statements should not only be specific in spelling out what is necessary to help them, but include a form of financial entitlement that indicates the LEA money to which the child is entitled to have their needs met. If we introduced such a system and made schools more independent, we could show that, demonstrably, the more vulnerable children in our education system benefited the most.
I shall wrap up my remarks and open the Floor to debate by drawing a few conclusions. There will be those who are opposed to ideas about parent power and setting schools free. Those who oppose greater independence for parents and schools are, in essence, stuck in a regressive 1950s mindset. It is progressive to give parents greater choice and to set schools free. The days of deference to remote experts are rightly over. We who argue for school independence and parental choice are the real progressives now. We need a system of education that offers genuine pluralism that cannot be dictated from the centre, and with pluralism and choice will come genuine innovation.
To conclude, the only people in this Room who are experts on what is right for children are those of us who are parents and who have the expertise to decide what is right for our child. The days of national politicians dictating what sort of education every child should receive should be over.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Carswell, who has made an excellent and thoughtful speech. He is right to use the mechanism of this alternative Chamber to have an alternative kind of debate in which we are less concerned with day-to-day politics and more concerned about developing long-term policy and, indeed, philosophy. I hesitate to use the word "philosophy" in the House of Commons, as I do not want to be accused of being an intellectual, which would be political death.
My hon. Friend made an important contribution in the way that he introduced this debate. He was kind enough to mention a pamphlet that I recently penned, but I claim no particular credit for any ideas in it, as it contains nothing new. There is little that is new in the debate on education. Many of these ideas have been around for many years, but I believe that there is a new determination to question all existing orthodoxies and to be prepared to consider what happens in other parts of the world and, indeed, Europe.
There is extraordinary diversity in educational provision in other parts of Europe. There is not a view in other European countries that there must be only one educational model. For instance, Sweden, which has a tradition of many years of social democratic government—centre-left government with short periods of centre-right government—has introduced a radical universal voucher scheme, which imposes controls on admissions. The scheme has resulted in an explosion of new, privately run schools that appear to be popular and to cater for a need.
In Holland, which does not have a reputation for being a particularly conservative country, there has long been a tradition of the state, in effect, funding private schools. In France, the salaries of teachers in private schools are paid by the state. There is not a view in other European countries that there must be a great divide between the public and private sectors.
In that context, I welcome the speech which I understand the leader of my party gave today in which he praised people who work in the public sector. It has always been the view of the Conservative party that we must mix and match. One cannot say as a general proposition that the public sector or the private sector is always best. We are prepared to advocate a public-private partnership, which exists in other countries but not in this one. In this country, where the fees of most private schools are way beyond what most ordinary people can afford, only 7 per cent. of children go to private schools. How can most of the people who work in the public sector, for instance, possibly afford boarding school fees of up to £18,000 a year, or private school fees of perhaps £9,000 or £10,000 a year, out of taxed income? The situation is different in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Holland, where there is extraordinary diversity.
However, let us not discuss private schools only. Other European countries are moving away from central direction of state education, so let us discuss that for a moment. Speaking as a parent, I know a great deal about French education. I sent all my children to the French lycée in London for a time. My mother and father were brought up in France. That country's education system has a reputation for being centrally driven. There is a joke that the Minister of Education in Paris knows that at 10.30 on a Wednesday morning, every child in France is opening the same geography textbook, but that simply is not true anymore. For many years, France has been moving away from a centrally driven education system.
Incidentally, it is also instructive that most middle-class parents in France are happy to use state education, wherever they live. It is of an excellent standard, and we must ask why that is the case. I have alluded to the private schools in France and the fact that salaries in those schools are paid by the state. People use such schools for a particular purpose, but most people are happy with state education, which, increasingly, is not centrally driven.
A point that must be considered in this debate is whether this country has taken a wrong turning since the 1960s. Did my party, when it was in power, make a fundamental error? There were two things that we could have done.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Harwich that the national curriculum, whose genesis was in the time of the Conservative Government, is too dirigiste and therefore should be progressively abandoned?
I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. Funnily enough, yesterday I spoke at length to Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, about this debate. He reminded me that the national curriculum was introduced for perfectly good reasons. We were concerned that kids in many parts of the country did not seem to be achieving the basic standards in education that we expected, and it was an honest attempt to raise standards nationally.
The national curriculum had a reasonably loose structure when it was introduced, but it has become altogether too bureaucratic and prescriptive. I agree with my hon. Friend that we could progressively move to a system in which individual state schools are independent. That is the vision that the Prime Minister set out in his White Paper, which I fully support, and I believe that in his heart of hearts, he would agree with much if not all of what my hon. Friend said.
Does my hon. Friend accept that it would be perfectly possible for Ministers of an incoming Conservative Government to return the national curriculum to the original vision?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend made that intervention. As part of this think-piece debate, it is important that we explore such nuances and how our party would approach the problem of improving educational standards. My hon. Friend, who is totally committed to education, believes and has great trust that a future Conservative Government could return the national curriculum to something like what it was before. He is worried about the state of the educational establishment, particularly teacher training colleges, and believes that once he becomes a Minister—we all sincerely hope that he does become an Education Minister—he can impose his will.
It is important that my hon. Friend and I should conduct this friendly debate in public as well as in private, as it informs how we will develop policy during the next three years while we are in opposition. With respect to him, one cannot impose one's view from the centre. Incidentally, that is the view of Chris Woodhead and other people I know who work in the state sector. If there are 20,000 schools in this country, that is impossible. Whatever one says and does, whatever one's commitment and however long one is allowed to be a Minister—and Ministers' powers are somewhat limited—if schools do not agree, they will simply not go along, and my hon. Friend knows that.
When I have visited schools in my constituency and talked about synthetic phonics—now they are in fashion, but a few years ago they were not—teachers have told me, "Well, we had all these circulars from the state, but we just binned them and carried on doing what we know best; we're professionals." Whatever my hon. Friend's good intentions, even if he tried to return the national curriculum to a pure state of more traditional conservative teaching—if it were possible to devise such a thing—if head teachers and teachers on the ground and teacher training colleges wanted to ignore it, they would.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman can clarify something because I, too, am confused by the position advanced by the Conservative spokesman, Mr. Gibb. As I understand it, he said that giving schools and head teachers greater autonomy would lead to a more uniform curriculum. He expressed the concern that there would be a whole county in which every school offered the same package of education. That has not been my experience of head teachers being given greater discretion over setting classes. Why would the official spokesman for the hon. Gentleman's party be concerned about that possibility?
I do not think that that would happen. If the model that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich discussed were accepted, and head teachers had genuinely independent powers over their curriculum, is it really believable that every school in an entire county or large town would follow the same progressive model? In fact, under that model, other schools would develop and parents would vote with their feet. Do we have no self-confidence? As Conservatives, we believe in a traditional form of teaching. We believe that that works and that many modern teaching fashions have corrupted education. Do we really have so little confidence in professionals, teachers and parents that we believe that if they were given complete freedom, all of them in an entire county would move to an extreme form of progressive education?
If that happened, however, it would of course happen under my hon. Friend's model presumably only because that was what teachers, head teachers and parents wanted. If they want it, let them have it—but I do not think that it would happen.
In response to the intervention from Mr. Browne, my comments related to what would happen if we abolished the national curriculum, which I am totally against. To take up my hon. Friend's point about whether Ministers can determine matters, I am not saying that central Government can or indeed should prescribe everything that happens in schools; what I am saying is that Ministers can determine the content of national curriculum documents that emanate from the Department for Education and Skills.
My understanding, from what I have experienced in my current role and as an MP for nine years, is that too often Ministers from both parties have not been engaged in the detailed minutiae of what emanates from the Department. We live in a democracy, where accountability rests here, so it is important that Ministers should have detailed knowledge of the issues and be engaged in them. An incoming Conservative Government would take that view. I am afraid that there are too many documents currently emanating from the Department that do not reflect the wishes of Ministers, the public or the party in power.
I wish my hon. Friend well. He is right: Ministers can take charge and issue whichever documents they want. Whether those documents will be obeyed in all or most schools, I do not know. That would rather depend on whether they went with the flow of what teachers wanted. If such documents went with the flow, they would be obeyed; if not, they would not.
I am sorry to intervene again, for the final time, but the point is that a lot of these documents are influential on teachers. Most teachers with whom I come into contact are conscientious, and will lean on documents that emanate from the DFES. The problem, particularly with phonics and the teaching of reading, has been that teachers have leant on the framework document but it has been wrong. The searchlights model is the wrong method for teaching children to read, yet many conscientious teachers, doing their best, have relied on it to the detriment of many children's reading skills. My point is not that we should be more prescriptive or take more powers but that where we have influence we should use it the right way, based on evidence of the pedagogical methods and curriculum that works and that parents want.
I agree completely. Great—let us try that, but we have to be realistic about our abilities, especially when we are dealing with the educational establishment that we have.
The opinion of one professor of education writing recently, which Chris Woodhead mentioned in a speech, is that
"The great challenge for education in the 21st century is...the discovery of a holistic, problematised pedagogy".
Does that mean anything to you, Mr. Chope? It means nothing to me. Then there is the commissioner for London schools—an official person, presumably—who said recently:
"In the light of research into the brain and theories of learning, teachers' questioning techniques will have moved (by 2050) beyond traditional methods."
That is what we are dealing with, and what my hon. Friend will be dealing with as a Minister.
We will go on debating the issue, but let us not get any more bogged down. I must not speak for too long, because others might want to get in. However, my hon. Friend has raised an interesting debate that need not necessarily be the preserve of members of the Conservative party. I have great hopes for the hon. Member for Taunton, whose early intervention convinced me that there are people in the Liberal party who also believe in localism and local determination—I hope that there are such people in the Labour party, too.
Such people might follow us in supporting the concept of schools being given increasing powers over their budgets if, for instance, there were a shortage of maths or language teachers. Indeed, there is a great crisis in languages in state schools, as well as in mathematics and science teaching, and it is independent schools that are saving sciences and languages in universities. That is something that the Government should be worried about. I hope that all hon. Members here would agree that schools should be given more independence over their budgets, if that is what they wish.
The great divide is of course over selection. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich was again right to say that we should not get bogged down in the debate about grammar schools. That debate has gone—it is finished, it is in the past. A Conservative Government would not need to say that we will introduce a grammar school in every town. That was one line in the 1997 manifesto. It is not going to return and the debate is in the past. All we need to do is give head teachers and their governing bodies increasing powers over admissions.
It was said earlier that the only result of doing that would be that schools would choose pupils, and that pupils and parents would not be able to choose schools. It is claimed that if we give head teachers greater power over admissions, large numbers of schools will suddenly become ultra-selective and turn people away, and there will be no decent schools for kids. Indeed, I am not sure that my children could have got into grammar schools, although I am not for or against those schools—that is irrelevant.
For the sake of argument, does the Minister or anybody else think that if we gave head teachers increasing independence, there would be a revolution in our schools? Teachers are actually quite conservative in how they run their schools. Those running a pure comprehensive school are allowed to test anyway, to create a pure comprehensive system, in which there are three bands, of the most able, the middle and the less able. If comprehensive schools were given the freedom to select who they wanted, some might become more academic, some might remain comprehensive and some might admit more pupils of less academic ability. We do not know.
There are schools in the independent sector that cater for all abilities. There are Winchesters and the Etons, which are highly academic and highly selective, but there are also many independent schools that cater for middle and lower ability ranges. I therefore urge hon. Members to forget the party political polemic about grammar schools and to think about giving more freedom and responsibility to head teachers to run their own schools in their own way. Let us imagine that we did that and allowed schools to run their own budgets—we allowed, in effect, all schools to become grant maintained. The problem with the creation of grant-maintained schools was that only some schools became grant maintained, so there was a dispute about whether those schools were receiving preferential capital funding. Let us imagine that all schools had the freedoms of grant-maintained schools in respect of hiring and firing, selecting and deselecting, their budgets and paying French teachers and others. I do not believe that there would be a revolution in those schools, but I do believe that there would be a revolution in terms of choice and freedom, and that that would be extraordinarily beneficial to our system.
Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that if there were a free-for-all on admissions, some schools would voluntarily select pupils who were less academically able and who came from more challenging backgrounds, such as children with special educational needs and looked-after children? Is he really saying that he believes such pupils would be catered for without some protection from an admissions code and without the local authority having a role to play in admissions?
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and I, and all others who advance the point of view that we have expressed, accept that there have to be special measures under the statementing procedure. We are critical of the present statementing procedure. I have my own experience of it. We believe that it is overly bureaucratic and could be simplified and that a financial value should be attached to the statement. However, we all accept that there will always be under any system a financial subsidy—whether or not it is called a statement and whether it is run centrally or by local authorities—to assist children with special educational needs. Yes, I take that completely on board, but I believe that if we moved to a system in which head teachers were free to set their own admissions criteria, we would have a vast range of schools catering for different abilities, and most schools, as happens in the private sector, would cater for all abilities. I know that Labour Members cannot philosophically accept that—it is anathema to them—but I urge them to have more confidence in head teachers and not to believe that all head teachers would simply go ruthlessly for the brightest 10 per cent. of children. There simply are not enough of those children to go round.
My hon. Friend and I are talking about the money following the pupil. We are arguing that instead of the money being siphoned off by central and local government, it should, through a small funding council, go direct to schools. That would allow each child to have, under the present set-up, £6,000 or even more, and there would be a school for everyone.
If we gave schools greater choice, certain schools that are currently barred from taking on children with special educational needs would do so. Market Field school, just outside my constituency, is trying to expand, but is in effect prevented from doing so by educational experts. If we adopted the scheme that my hon. Friend and I are advocating, a school such as Market Field would expand and welcome children with special educational needs—children whom other mainstream schools may find it more difficult to cater for. More children would have their needs catered for than under the current system.
I am sure that Kerry McCarthy accepts that a lot of disguised selection goes on at the moment. All those of us who deal with the education system know that. For instance, I know comprehensives in London that will do anything they can to avoid taking in children with statements. A lot of cheating goes on in relation to SATs—standard assessment tests—league tables and all the rest of it. It would be wrong to think that at the moment we have a comprehensive system that is as pure as the driven snow and works. Well, let us deal with whether it does work. That is the crucial question. Are we providing the education system that we should be, given all the investment that has been put in? I give credit to the Government because they have increased investment in education, but are they satisfied that every extra pound of taxpayers' money that they are spending is producing results?
Is the Minister satisfied with the level of education available to our children? Is he worried about the National Audit Office report showing that 1 million of our children are in failing or coasting schools? If he is satisfied with the present system, why is he supporting the Education and Inspections Bill? Why is there so much controversy over these issues in his own party? Why does he believe that there must be more diversity? He will probably say that the debate just shows that he is right. There are people to the left and to the right of him, the cannons are thundering and he is going down the third way, the middle route—all the stuff we hear from new Labour Ministers—but they, who are now in charge, must be very worried about that.
My final point relates to the most controversial part of what my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich said and what some of us in my party are trying to convince those on our Front Bench of, in the truly democratic and open party that we have. We strongly believe, as my hon. Friend said, that parents should have a right to opt out of the state system if they want to and that they should be allowed to take the cost of state education, which they have contributed to all their lives as taxpayers, out of the state system and into the private system. That is happening increasingly around the world and is very popular, particularly with marginalised people. Black people in ghetto areas in large United States cities like the voucher: it allows them to escape from the ghetto. It could be called a voucher or an education credit. I find one particular description rather attractive and I believe that the idea could be made quite popular. I am talking about a parent saying, "I have a right to this money. This is my right for my child. I can take this £6,000 where I want. I can leave it in existing state schools or take it to new schools."
That would be good for the private sector, which is too cosy at the moment. Independent schools might not email one another any more because they are worried about being reported to the Office of Fair Trading, but we all know that it is an extraordinary coincidence that they all seem to charge the same fees. However, many other people are entering the independent sector, and surely it is a new Labour idea to encourage choice, diversity and new entrants into the private sector, because new Labour is not against the private sector, is it?
As ever, I listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman's fascinating ideas. I am just intrigued as to whether he has costed this proposal, given that at the moment people who send their children to private schools receive no state funding. What is the dead-weight cost of his proposal?
I am delighted to answer that question, because I have thought about the issue a lot. I have been arguing for this proposal for many years, and my colleagues on various Treasury teams have said, "Oh, it's a wonderful idea, Edward, but of course we can't do a dead-weight cost." My idea is that we would do it incrementally. If there were an incoming Conservative Government, we would say that we would provide a voucher, a credit, a right to opt out in the first year of the new Act operating. The first year to which it would apply would be year R, the next year would be year R plus year 1 and the next year would be year R plus year 1 plus year 2. The scheme would roll out over 14 years. Therefore, I am not arguing for myself, because by the time that happened, all my children would have left school. I fear that you, Mr. Chope, would be in the same sad position. We would not benefit from the proposal.
Yes, our grandchildren might; why not? There is in effect no dead-weight cost because the scheme applies only to future children. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, the shadow Minister, agrees that it is at least an intriguing idea that we could think about. I think that it would be quite popular and I hope that it appeals to our Treasury colleagues.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich. So far, the debate has been very interesting. We shall shortly hear the Front-Bench speeches. I hope that, in the spirit of the debate, those speaking from the Front Benches will not talk simply in party political terms, but will open their hearts in the way that I know Ministers of the Crown love doing and will think ahead to how we can provide a truly effective education for all our children.
I congratulate Mr. Carswell on securing the debate. I shall comment on a few of the issues raised. I was somewhat surprised at how little reference there was to the debate that we have been having over the past few months on the Education and Inspections Bill, which I believe strikes the right balance between moving away from a very centralised, local education authority-controlled education system towards more independence for schools. However, some ideas flagged up today by Conservative Members go too far down that route.
On admissions, when I intervened earlier the focus of the debate was very much on pupils with special educational needs, to whom it was said a price tag is attached which acts as an incentive to take in such children. I was looking at the matter in a broader context, in relation to pupils who might be termed less desirable from the point of view of a head teacher who wants the school to do well in the league tables. In my constituency, for example, there are pupils from refugee backgrounds who have English as their second language, and whose parents, often, are illiterate, so that they do not receive support at home. What would happen to them?
I welcome the move to give more power to head teachers and parents. I think that, often, those at the chalk face in the teaching profession know what is best for children. Parents, too, obviously know what is best for them, but that does not necessarily apply across the board. A great many parents, because of their educational background or social circumstances, do not have all that great a role in their children's education at present. I welcome the moves in the Education and Inspections Bill to give the local authority the role of parents' champion and of supporting parents in exercising a greater say in their children's education. However, there will always be some children whose parents are not the best people to make those choices for them. There must be a mechanism to enable other people to supervise the child's education and make the right choices.
The hon. Member for Harwich frequently used the term "expert" pejoratively, which is quite demeaning to people who work in the education profession. I recently met, in my constituency, a group of educationists who work with children who have special educational needs, and they are devoted to making sure that children in the city of Bristol get the best education. To dismiss their contribution and the expertise that they have built up by working with children, parents and teachers over the years is going too far. The hon. Gentleman also talked about local education authorities all in the same breath, as though all were equally bad. There are local education authorities that do an incredibly good job of ensuring that schools perform well and give pupils the best deal.
That leads me to my main points. I am in the unfortunate position, I suppose, of representing the place that has the worst-performing local education authority in the country as far as state secondary schools are concerned. It is now adrift at the bottom of the league tables by about 5 per cent. As the Secretary of State would tell hon. Members, even Hull is performing better than Bristol these days. We accept that we have a serious problem. It is not a recent development. Over many years the local authority has failed to tackle the problem of underperformance in Bristol's state schools. We have schools where not even one in five pupils achieve five good GCSEs. In two schools serving my constituency, with a very diverse intake of pupils, not one African-Caribbean child achieved five good GCSEs last year.
People admit that the state school system in Bristol is failing pupils. As a result there has been a mass exodus from Bristol schools, either into the private sector or out to schools in Gloucestershire and Somerset. It is estimated that about 50 per cent. of parents choose to abandon Bristol's state secondary schools as a result of that poor performance. I accept that the local authority has not got to grips with that, and although there has been some incremental improvement and the school results were up last year by a tiny percentage, unless there is change on a radical scale we shall fail another generation of children.
That is why I welcome some of the proposals in the Education and Inspections Bill to give schools more independence. I have in my constituency a school that is a shining example of what happens when schools are given more independence. It is one of the first city academies. Before what was called the St. George school became an academy it was one of the most unpopular with parents and one of the most under-subscribed schools in Bristol. Parents went to great lengths to avoid sending their children there. It serves a deprived area and parents in the locality do not have high incomes, but they would still scrape together the money to send their children to private schools or bus them out of the county, because they did not want to send their kids to St. George. The pupils were disaffected and the exam results were dismal.
When St. George became a city academy and got the independence—and, admittedly, the capital injection that went with that—things turned around dramatically. In the past year, 51 per cent. of pupils gained five or more good GCSEs. That was a 19 per cent. increase on the previous year. There are some schools where not even 19 per cent. get five GCSEs in the first place; it is a fantastic increase. The academy is now the most improved school in Bristol and one of the best performing academies in the country.
That success is all the more remarkable in the light of the intake of pupils at the academy, 35 per cent. of whom have free school meals. That compares to a national average of about 10.5 per cent. and a Bristol-wide average of less than 10 per cent.—about 9.3 per cent. Sixty per cent. of the pupils in the academy come from visible ethnic minorities and 31 languages are spoken there. Many pupils come from refugee families and live under the constant threat of deportation or have endured traumatic situations to get to the school. Often they start at the school with a limited grasp of English, but leave with a very good education. They have a real pride in their school.
I do not say that all that has been achieved at the academy is due to independence, but whenever I have visited the school it has been clear that the head teacher can mould what happens there to the needs of the people who attend it. For example, he is working with the Institute of Financial Services on piloting a financial capability study, which teaches children the basic facts about handling money—finance—and how to run their finances in future life. From speaking to IFS representatives I know that those children go home and teach their parents how to do the same. The school is in an area with a significant financial exclusion problem, but it is also in a city that is fast becoming one of the biggest financial services centres in the country, and the curriculum is being tailored both to deal with problems that pupils and their families might experience in the wider world, and to give them a leg up into the job market. They will get a diploma, on completing the course, equivalent to a GCSE.
I am enjoying the hon. Lady's speech enormously. She is making a principled and honest speech about the schools in her area and it is very interesting. I want to ask the Minister, through her, about the new qualification, which has been recognised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It may not be called either a GCSE or an A-level, because of the proprietary control of those names exercised by the three examining bodies. Will the Minister address that point? Why can the new qualification not be called a GCSE or A-level? That is what it really is.
I agree about that. I believe the qualification has been accredited with exactly the same value as an A-level for university admissions, but there is always a danger that it will be seen as a lesser qualification, because it does not carry that tag.
Something else that the academy's head teacher has done is to offer pupils payments according to their exam results. Staff discuss with pupils, before they sit their exams, the grades that they hope for. A system is operating in which, if they exceed expectations, they get an extra £10 or so. Pupils tend, at the end of the year, to walk away with £300 or £400. That is something that middle-class parents do all the time. They promise their kids that if they do well in their exams they can have driving lessons, a computer or a holiday. The head teacher can do something similar through managing the school budget. I spoke to a group of pupils who had just finished their GCSEs last year, and although it was not the only incentive for them to work, as they were a quite motivated bunch of children anyway, knowing that they would finish their GCSEs with money in their pocket was an incentive too.
I am uneasy about that concept. What makes people uncomfortable about the new variant of Labour is that, instead of education being seen as a process of enriching oneself, widening horizons, becoming broad-minded and gaining experiences and opportunities that one would not otherwise gain, everything is brought down to the lowest common denominator, which is a monetary award for passing exams. Surely education is more varied, interesting and diverse than that.
I accept that point to a degree, but we are talking about pupils from families with little spare household income. As I said, middle-class parents do that sort of thing all the time by way of reward, and the pupils whom I spoke to were motivated by their enjoyment of the lessons at the school, by having had good careers guidance, and by being motivated to do further study or go to university. That was their prime motivation, but some value was also attached to their getting the qualification. As I said, many parents recognise that that is sometimes an incentive when pupils have to slave over their books long into the night.
The involvement of sponsors and the wider community will be crucial to academies and the trust schools proposed under the Education and Inspections Bill. Those factors was perhaps lacking in the vision outlined by the hon. Members for Harwich and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). This is not only about parents and teachers making decisions, but about the wider community being very much involved in how its schools are run. The academy in my constituency is sponsored by the university of the West of England, Bristol Rovers football club and the chamber of commerce. We have a real problem with the school staying-on rates in Bristol—indeed, we are way below the average, and Britain, as we know, performs very badly—so it is important that we involve potential employers and sponsors.
I end with a plea to the Minister. In my discussions with Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills and the Treasury, there has been a real issue about the VAT status of academies and other schools, and I suspect that the same applies to foundation schools. Schools want to open their facilities to the community, but if they do so for more than 10 per cent. of their opening hours there is a possibility that they will be penalised and have to pay back the VAT exemption on the capital investment that they made. The Minister is probably well aware of the issue, and I simply urge him to bear it in mind when he responds.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope. It might surprise some hon. Members to hear that I was the keynote speaker at the Independent Schools Bursars Association conference about three weeks ago. It was an enjoyable event, and I was pleased to receive the invitation. I met a lot of independent schools' bursars and got an invitation to visit Eton, which I might take up once I have visited all the schools in my constituency.
I congratulate Mr. Carswell on securing the debate, which is very timely, given the stage that we have reached in the education debate nationally. In the spirit of our proceedings, let me start by agreeing with him on various points. The Liberal Democrats certainly agree that there are problems and that far too many schools are failing or coasting. We wholeheartedly agree that we need to encourage innovation and local leadership, free from central Government diktat, which still casts a shadow over the education system.
We also agree that we have an over-prescriptive centralised national curriculum, with far too much nationally imposed testing. Furthermore, I agree with Mr. Leigh that the dogmatic obsession with the question whether public or private is best is damaging, and there is clearly a role for the public, private and voluntary sectors in our public services.
I would probably also agree with the hon. Member for Harwich and the Conservative party that the trust schools proposed in the Education and Inspections Bill will not deliver the vision that he outlined. Indeed, they have become something of a fudge—they are neither one thing nor the other. So, despite the Conservative party's support for the Bill, I am sure he would acknowledge that it will not implement what he advocates.
That Bill is certainly a long way from the original vision outlined by the Prime Minister, who said that he wanted all schools to become trust schools. I fundamentally disagree with that approach, which is a strange and over-prescriptive way of running our education system. It reminds me of Henry Ford, because it is a bit like saying, "You can choose any school you want as long as it's a trust school." That is not parental choice, which is the one thing we all agree that we want, although we have different ways of achieving it.
I shall follow the development of Conservative party education policy with interest, because having supported the Bill, Conservative Members are likely to be quite critical of trust schools when they do little to improve standards over the coming years. However, we shall wait and see.
As regards the Liberal Democrat vision, we agree with more freedom, localism and choice—the buzz words that we all use, although we have different ways of implementing our policies. However, the one freedom that schools need above all is the one that the Bill does not give them—the freedom to teach what they want. We made that clear throughout proceedings on the Bill, although we shall not, of course, go through those debates again.
The one freedom that the Bill gives schools with which we disagree is the freedom to pick pupils. A Headspace survey of head teachers showed that 38 per cent. admitted breaking their own admissions code. I accept that my party has a different vision of education, but our concern is that giving schools more independence will allow them to pick their own pupils.
My party does not agree with that approach, although other hon. Members might, and that is a perfectly reasonable perspective. However, the evidence is that such things are happening, and they will become more likely to happen the more we go down the route of having independent schools. That will be to the detriment of the pupils whom our education system currently fails most.
My hon. Friends and I are also concerned about accountability, which is another reason why we do not want to go down the route of introducing further independence for schools. The hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned localism, and it is extraordinary that, in trust schools and particularly academies, private companies will now have power over elected parent governors, never mind head teachers and elected local education authorities. That is a strange vision of localism and accountability.
There is a danger in saying that independence is the solution to the problems in our schools, in the same way that we said that comprehensive education was the one-size-fits-all solution. We have had a healthy debate, and it has been interesting and valuable to take part because none of those who have contributed has fallen into the trap of talking about party political positions, but we must be aware of the danger of saying that independence in itself, or a comprehensive education in itself, is the key to unlocking the door and will give us wonderful schools everywhere.
Let me also sound a brief note of caution. I understand the vision outlined by the hon. Member for Harwich, but we must listen to schools. Throughout proceedings on the Education and Inspections Bill, there was lots of talk about how we must empower schools, but are we listening to schools in the first place? In January, a Guardian/ICM poll of 805 head teachers and assistant head teachers showed that only 29 per cent. backed plans to free schools from direct local education authority control, but I suspect that such things are not taken into account in those debates or when we discuss measures such as those in the Bill.
"all smoke and mirrors. We already have freedom as heads. You don't have to buy into local authority services if you don't want to."
Again, are we falling into the trap of political dogma?
To conclude, there is little concrete evidence that self-governing independent status for state schools drives up standards, and driving up standards is the one thing to which we are all absolutely committed. The Minister could mention other examples, but in the case of academies, there is extra funding and various other things. As we know, academies have a mixed record, so independence in itself does not deliver— [Interruption.] The Minister is welcome to intervene.
The facts speak for themselves.
On a consensual note, we all agree that what drives up standards and improves schools is good local leadership, good management and, of course, good teaching. There has been too much focus on structures instead of standards, and on political dogma. One thing that I learned from my interesting chats with the Independent Schools Bursars Association is that we can learn from real, independent schools in the state sector. That is what we should concentrate on, rather than status and structures. We can learn about flexible learning, having a broader curriculum to suit individual pupils and—my big bugbear—smaller class sizes, which my wife, who is a primary school teacher, tells me would make the biggest difference to children's education overall.
This has been an interesting and valuable debate, and I am pleased to have contributed to it. Now that the dust has settled and we have debated the Education and Inspections Bill, whatever the type or name of school, let us focus most on standards, particularly those in schools in which children are being failed, who most need the intervention of the education system. I am certain we can agree that we should concentrate on that.
It is a pleasure to follow Greg Mulholland, and I agree that we must not concentrate too much on structures. There is a range of issues that we need to address to raise standards, which we should now focus on in our debates.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Carswell on securing the debate. He made an interesting and thoughtful speech, but we have come to expect that during his first year as a Member of the House.
The desire to increase independence for state schools is shared in all parts of the House, or at least on the Government and official Opposition Benches. That commitment was demonstrated by the overwhelming support that the Education and Inspections Bill received on Second and Third Readings. We supported the Bill because it makes it easier for schools to adopt foundation status and become trust schools. That reflects the increasing body of evidence, which my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh mentioned, from Sweden and the United States, and indeed from this country's grant-maintained schools programme, that increasing diversity, independence and choice has powerful effects in raising school standards.
The Prime Minister is committed to independence. He recently said:
"The logic of changing to the specialist schools, of starting City Academies, of giving greater freedom to schools in who they hire, what they pay, how they run their school day, is very clear. It is to escape the straitjacket of the traditional comprehensive school and embrace the idea of genuinely independent non-fee paying state schools."
A key part of the Prime Minister's solution to this problem lies in granting schools additional freedoms. In October, he said:
"By the end of this third term, I want every school that wants to be to be able to be an independent, non fee-paying state school with the freedom to innovate and develop in the way it wants and the way the parents at the school want".
"Our reforms must build on the freedoms that schools have increasingly received, but extend them" rapidly.
Independence and innovation can play a vital role in raising the quality of education. That is why, in 2004-05, only 38 per cent. of pupils at community schools achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, but in city technology colleges, which have independence, 66 per cent. of pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths. A quarter of pupils at community schools leave with no GCSEs at all, but in the CTC sector that figure is only 3.6 per cent.
Thomas Telford school, which I mentioned on many occasions during our debates on the Education and Inspections Bill, has a national ability range or intake, and 11 per cent. of pupils take free school meals, but 100 per cent. of pupils achieved not five or more, but 12 or more, good GCSEs or equivalent.
Of course, the results for academies seem slightly less promising, although, in an excellent speech, Kerry McCarthy pointed out that her academy is achieving results of about 51 per cent. of pupils getting five or more GCSEs, which is a 19 per cent. increase on last year. Those are promising results. It would be interesting to visit that school at some point.
Many academies still achieve quite poor results, but if we compare them to those of their predecessor schools, there are still clear signs of improvement. Results show that by 2005 the proportion of students gaining five or more good GCSEs had risen from 21 per cent. in the predecessor schools to 36.4 per cent. in the academies. There is an interesting comment in the PricewaterhouseCoopers report:
"A very clear and significant finding from the early research is that there does seem to be a significant difference in the learning culture in new Academies, compared to their predecessors. For example, 8 out of 10 pupils in the survey said that 'the teachers at this Academy really believe that all pupils can achieve', and similar numbers of staff surveyed said 'staff at this Academy believe that all pupils can achieve regardless of their social background'."
Some academies have failed principally because they appointed the wrong head teachers to run them. At Unity City academy in Middlesbrough, only 12 of the 200 pupils taking GCSEs achieved grade C in maths and English compared with 17 pupils at the two predecessor schools. An article in The Sunday Times in March said:
"When Unity opened in 2002 the new head...promised a revolution in learning that would 'discard the Victorian-style chalk and talk' and put in place 'learning sessions' taken by 'learning facilitators'."
That reflects many of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made about some of the vogue methods of teaching that take place in some schools. The article continued:
"Old-style history and science were to be replaced by 'concepts' taught as topics, and teachers were told to adjust their styles to cater for whether children were 'kinesthetic, visual or auditory' learners."
Since then, the Unity academy has been identified as a failing school by Ofsted, with debts of £1.5 million. Of course, the head teacher was got rid of, and the school is showing signs of improvement. In that case and in other examples, the governing bodies and proprietors of schools took decisive and swift action, replacing the heads and ensuring that standards were safeguarded.
I want to raise two quick points with the Minister, the first of which concerns the importance of provisions on freedoms, which are already on the statute book. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West made the point that a lot of the freedoms for the new trust schools are illusory and that the real freedoms are in previous legislation, such as, to quote the Secretary of State, the
"tortuous process under the power to innovate"—[Hansard, 24 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 1590.]
available under chapter 1 of part 1 of the Education Act 2002. Only a tiny number of schools have taken advantage of that freedom because of the tortuous route to acquiring it. In fact, only 178 out of 26,000 have made use of it.
It is also disappointing that the Government have not yet implemented chapter 2 of part 1 of the 2002 Act on earned autonomy. That was a major element of the previous education White Paper, which said:
"Where schools are successful, well-led and have a record of school improvement, we want to free them from those conditions and regulatory requirements which they tell us stand in the way of yet higher standards and further innovation."
It went on:
"We will allow schools flexibility over some elements of teachers' pay and conditions, for example to provide even greater recruitment and retention incentives".
Those reforms were central to the 2002 Act.
The then Secretary of State, now Lady Morris, said:
"We want to give the best schools even greater freedoms."—[Hansard, 4 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 196.]
Despite her words, those provisions have not yet been implemented. The Department for Education and Skills website said that a consultation document on earned autonomy was due to be published on
I recently asked the previous Minister, Jacqui Smith, what was happening with the new provisions and when they were going to be brought into force, to which she replied:
As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said, giving schools more autonomy and freedom over their day-to-day running is not the whole story when it comes to raising standards. Issues such as the curriculum, discipline in schools and ending mixed ability teaching in comprehensives are all hugely important. However, when the right head teacher is appointed, autonomy has a major effect in raising standards.
Conservative Members hope that many schools will use the provisions in the latest education Bill to become trust schools in the years ahead. If the Government are committed to autonomy, it would be helpful if they implemented the earned autonomy provisions in the 2002 Act and made it easier for schools to use the other elements of freedom that are contained in it.
I thank Mr. Carswell for securing the debate and congratulate him on doing so. Mr. Leigh described it as a think-piece debate, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. At times, it felt like listening to a Conservative party policy forum, but the contribution by my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy provided excellent balance to that. There were also significant and interesting contributions from Liberal Democrats Members.
Both the hon. Member for Harwich and I recognise that increasing independence for state schools is essential if we are to deliver the best education possible for all our children and young people. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East, I caution that he advocates a much more extreme version from his avowed position of the centre right. I do not feel able to support it, certainly not in its entirety.
As my hon. Friend said, the recent Education and Inspections Bill has enshrined the principle of greater independence for state schools—Parliament willing—in law. That has not just come out of the blue. It is the natural next step in the journey that this Government have taken to raise standards since 1997. It is worth reflecting for a moment on that journey to see how far we have come.
We have invested record sums in education because it is such a key priority. By 2008, spending per pupil will be twice what it was in 1997. Capital spending has risen sevenfold, so that by 2020 all secondary schools, and half of all primary schools, will be refurbished or rebuilt and will be fantastic places to teach and learn.
We are backing up that investment with reform. We have freed up teachers to teach, and delivered on our promise to achieve the smaller class sizes that Greg Mulholland mentioned.
We are continuing to address behavioural and disciplinary problems, which have caused disruption and mayhem in our most difficult classrooms. The "Every Child Matters" programme is tackling problems outside the classroom that impact on children's ability to flourish and progress, helping to ensure that they are ready and able to learn once they are at school.
Far from there being a quango state, which the hon. Member for Harwich alleged, since we introduced the fair funding framework in 1999 the percentage of funding delegated to schools has increased from 79 to 87 per cent. We are making good movement in the right direction on delegating funding directly to schools, and that approach is paying off.
Last year, there were record results across the board at 11, 14, 16 and 18. In 1997, just 65 per cent. of 11-year-olds reached the basic standards in English, whereas today the figure is 79 per cent. That means 84,000 more children every year going on to secondary school ready and able to learn. Speeches that, admittedly, tried not to be too partisan still started from the premise that everything in our schools is a disaster and is failing. I do not accept that.
The improvements that I mentioned are dramatic, but, importantly, we are well aware that we have not delivered for everyone: only 30 per cent. of children receiving free school meals get five good GCSEs and, as we have heard, one in 10 of those children do not achieve any qualifications at all.
I must tell the hon. Member for Gainsborough that we believe that it is unacceptable for 1 million children to be in failing or coasting schools, although I would advise caution over the use of that statistic, given that about 60,000 pupils in secondary schools and 30,000 in primary schools are in failing schools. Hearing that statistic, it would be easy to think that 1 million are in failing schools whereas the real figure is fewer than 100,000, which is roughly what it was in 1997.
Every child really does matter, and we believe that every child should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential through the best education possible. That is why I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East and why I share her concern for her constituents, some of whom are being failed by the education they are receiving. That is also why the Education and Inspections Bill sets out a number of ways in which we will achieve that goal of fulfilling potential. Greater independence for schools is an important part of that package, because greater independence for state schools is not only the next logical step. We already know that it works.
Independent schools have a number of distinctive features that help to deliver an education that meets the needs of their pupils. The best independent schools are highly accountable to parents and responsive to their wishes, and they develop innovative teaching practices and a positive ethos. They are supported by active and effective governors, and we know that in many cases they deliver excellent results. Equally, we reject the worst of independent schools—fee paying. We abolished the assisted places scheme in 1997 and are proud that we did so. Obviously, we also reject selection, which is a feature of many private independent schools.
Schools that have greater independence within the maintained sector are achieving great results. We heard about the excellent progress being made at the city academy in Bristol, and I am pleased that the Liberal Democrats there are actively supporting the creation of new academies. I hope they are also keen to pilot some of the first trust schools.
On average, academies have improved their collective GCSE results by five percentage points per year since the first schools opened, and that success can be directly attributed to their greater independence. That freedom and independence allow academies to develop the innovative approaches to the curriculum, teaching and performance management that deliver the results. Academies are challenging the culture of underachievement in our most deprived areas and they are succeeding.
Specialist schools also have increased freedoms and are demonstrating that greater freedom works. They are doing so on a much grander scale. Some 80 per cent. of all schools have achieved specialist status. In specialist schools, almost 60 per cent. of children achieve the diploma standard that we discussed in the 14 to 19 White Paper—five good GSCE passes—compared with less than 50 per cent. in non-specialist schools.
High-performing specialist schools are taking on a vital role in driving improvement across the system. Some are taking on a second specialism, some are focusing on underperforming pupils and some are taking on training school status, but all are working in partnership with other schools to raise achievement among local young people in their communities.
Alongside greater independence, such partnership working will also be central to the delivery of our reform. That independence for schools does not mean that they will all do their own thing in isolation. We do not see any conflict between seeking greater dynamism in the system and collaboration. We want a system of strong self-confident schools with a distinctive ethos working in partnership to respond to parental demand and to meet the needs of every child.
Schools benefit a great deal from collaboration with each other. Our objective is to ensure much wider collaboration, embracing all local partners. Academies and specialist schools are proving every day that schools that think beyond the education sector and draw on the energy and expertise of local community groups, local businesses and, of course, local parents can be the most successful.
The development of trust schools is the next major step in ensuring greater independence for state schools in the maintained sector. It is the next step in this evolution, not the revolution feared by the hon. Member for Gainsborough. Acquiring a trust will give schools many of the freedoms already enjoyed by foundation schools, and they will be really important in ensuring a dynamic and exciting maintained sector for this country. They will mean greater diversity across the whole system, which, in turn, will mean a genuine choice between high-quality schools that offer different opportunities and specialisms where pupils can develop their own individual talents. The involvement of a trust from the private, voluntary or public sector can improve the ethos and governance of a school.
However, there is a distinction between freeing-up schools and ensuring that they have greater independence within the maintained sector, and more independent schools. Working within the maintained sector, we can ensure fair access and opportunity for all; it is independence within important boundaries. I shall not rehearse yet again the debates relating to the Education and Inspections Bill because there is not enough time to do so in order to convince hon. Members of the merits of trust schools.
The Bill puts parents in the driving seat. Trust schools will have to comply with admissions legislation and act in accordance with the new school code, just like other schools. They will be part of the local authority family. I am looking forward to that legislation becoming law. It will then be my job to make progress by implementing it. I will also think about implementing those other things mentioned by Mr. Gibb.
I again thank the hon. Member for Harwich for raising the issue. We both agree that we must get away from the one-size-fits-all approach that too often does not fit anyone at all. Through the Bill and our wider programme for change, we want to achieve greater independence for state schools—not dogmatically for the sake of doing so, but because it can deliver real improvements in standards, building on what works in academies and specialist schools.