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House of Commons

Tuesday 12 June 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill

Order for consideration of Lords amendments read.

To be considered on Thursday.

Oral Answers to Questions


Opting Out

1. Dr. Twinn : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the aims of the policy that allows schools to opt out of local authority control.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Angela Rumbold) : Before I answer the question, may I offer the Housthe apologies of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who is unavoidably engaged visiting schools and training establishments in Germany? He sends the House his apologies. The engagement was fixed some time ago.

The aim of the policy is to improve parental choice and the use of resources to benefit the pupils. That is being achieved in the first grant- maintained schools. They are showing the way in maximising the commitment and enthusiasm of governors, parents and teachers. The policy is already proving an overwhelming success.

Dr. Twinn : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does she agree that many more schools would benefit from grant-maintained status? Will she make the success story of grant-maintained schools more widely known, so that parents, governors and staff can give more consideration to applying for grant-maintained status?

Mrs. Rumbold : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The success of the policy is demonstrated by the growing number of schools that are beginning to apply for grant-maintained status. As my hon. Friend will know, there are already 29 grant-maintained schools and there will be 12 more in September. A number of further proposals are about to be made. Therefore, the best way of informing the general public and particularly schools about the success of the grant-maintained policy is by the growing number of schools that are obtaining that status.

Mr. Flannery : Is not the Minister literally whistling in the dark because the policy is an utter failure--[ Hon. Members :-- "No."] It is no good Conservative Members shouting me down. The policy is being resisted all over the

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country. Like the city technology colleges and various other programmes, it is a partial step towards privatisation. Will the hon. Lady tell us the truth, because the eduation system is moving steadily into semi-chaos?

Mrs. Rumbold : I am not sure whether to take the hon. Gentleman seriously, but for the moment I shall do so and point out that the best way in which he can establish whether grant-maintained schools are a success is to visit one. He will then see the immense improvement in the morale of teachers and parents and in the way in which those schools are organised. The benefit of self-governing schools is indubitably for the best.

Mr. Pawsey : I hope that my hon. Friend will disregard the remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery). Does she agree that one of the ways in which we could create further interest in grant-maintained schools and increase the number of schools applying is by abolishing the wholly artificial threshold of 300 pupils? If that were abolished, many more schools would apply for grant-maintained status.

Mrs. Rumbold : My hon. Friend puts forward an interesting thought and I can assure him that we shall consider it, but at present we are extremely busy, as he will no doubt appreciate, with the number of applications and parental ballots that have already been successful.


2. Mr. Sumberg : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what resources are currently being provided by the medical research council for research into tinnitus.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Robert Jackson) : In 1988-89, the latest financial yearfor which figures are available, the medical research council spent £149,000 on research into tinnitus.

Mr. Sumberg : Would not it be a good idea for research to be carried out on tinnitus caused by working in ships' engine rooms so that people such as my constituent, Mr. Harmstone, could claim industrial injury benefit? Will my hon. Friend have a word with the medical research council and put that idea to it? At the same time will he have a word with his colleagues in the Department of Social Security to see whether they can do something to rectify an extremely unfair situation?

Mr. Jackson : I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security to my hon. Friend's question. The medical research council and the universities are autonomous institutions at arm's length from Government, but I shall draw their attention to the question.

Mr. Ashley : Is the Minister aware that many researchers tend to shun research into intractable problems, however great the suffering may be? The suffering with tinnitus is great, because of the roaring and shrieking sounds that people have to endure. Little research is coming forward and any help that the Minister can give to the MRC would be very much appreciated.

Mr. Jackson : I note what the right hon. Gentleman has said. The MRC has spent just over £2 million on research

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into hearing generally and it will see the remarks about tinnitus that the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) have made.

Mr. Key : My hon. Friend is well aware of the depth and breadth of research carried out by the MRC. What has been the increase in the MRC's vote since 1979?

Mr. Jackson : I am glad that my hon. Friend asked that question. The amount is substantial. There has been a 28 per cent. real terms increase in the MRC's funding since the Conservative party came into office.

School Buildings

3. Mr. Matthew Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations he has received concerning the repair and improvement of school buildings.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Alan Howarth) : I believe that it may be in order to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the position of education spokesman for the Social and Liberal Democrats. We shal take a cordial interest in seeing how quickly the hon. Gentleman proceeds along the cursus honorum trodden by his predecessor in office, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown).

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, my right hon. Friend has received a number of letters and other representations from local education authorities, hon. Members, diocesan bodies and others about the repair and improvement of school buildings.

Mr. Taylor : I thank the Minister for his kind comments. How does he envisage following the lead set by his predecessors who, in 1981, laid down minimum standards for school buildings, to be reached by 1991? It is clear in my county and in other parts of the country that schools will not reach those standards. Does the hon. Gentleman intend to put in extra money to allow them to reach those standards, or does he--to echo the words of the Minister of State to me in an Adjournment debate--intend to review those standards, presumably to cut them?

Mr. Howarth : We shall continue to make the excellent progress that we have made over the past 10 years in making money available to improve school buildings. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the capital expenditure per pupil in our schools has increased by 13 per cent. since 1978-79, the last year of the previous Labour Government, when Labour was supported in office by the hon. Gentleman's party, or its predecessor. Of course, I recognise that there is a considerable backlog of work. We must look at the needs sensitively and practically. We are examining the implications of the 1981 building regulations.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo : Do not those concerns have their roots in the maladministration of some local authorities? If they do not make rational, sensible analyses of their surplus school places, clearly there is not enough money to maintain the places that they really want. That problem must be addressed.

Mr. Howarth : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our best estimate from Her Majesty's inspectorate and the Audit Commission is that there are still more than 1

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million surplus school places in the system. Authorities that are not willing to grasp that nettle are guilty of tying up resources that are lying unproductive in the system, instead of making that money available for the benefit of children's education.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell : Is the Minister aware that in the county of Northumberland there is a repair bill of £1.5 million for all schools? Will he do something about that problem, or is he just going to stand there and let off bags of wind?

Mr. Howarth : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not able to join the all-party deputation from his county, which recently came to see me and the Department. We had a useful discussion about the problems of school buildings in Northumberland. I am pleased to be able to say that my officials are involved in a close dialogue with officers of the authority. I hope that we can assist the authority in formulating reasonable proposals for the next round of allocations, so that Northumberland can make the further progress that is necessary to deal with the pressing problems of repairing some of its village schools.

Mr. Robert B. Jones : Will my hon. Friend confirm that, as opposed to capital spending, if extra revenue were made available through the grant system, there would be no guarantee that it would be spent on school maintenance? Does my hon. Friend recall, for example, that when the Government made additional money available to local authorities for spending on road maintenance, only a tiny minority of it ended up being spent on roads?

Mr. Howarth : My hon. Friend, who is knowledgeable about these matters, has put his finger on a real issue. I am hopeful that local management of schools will make an impact on that problem. Local education authorities are obliged to devolve a significant proportion of their schools' budgets to school level. In that way, we can at least ensure that school governors, head teachers and their colleagues in the schools will have a proper say about the allocation of resources within the system.

Gene Manipulation

4. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what response he has given to the proposals of Professor Beringer of the department of botany in the university of Bristol for the expansion of the United Nations framework for covering problems related to gene manipulation ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Jackson : Professor Beringer has made no formal proposals to Ministers on this subject. However, the United Nations Environmental Programme, together with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation and the World Health Organisation, set up an informal working group in 1985 to consider all aspects of biosafety. Britain was invited to be an observer to some of the discussions of that group and the British Government will continue to support initiatives of the United Nations in that area.

Mr. Dalyell : Who is responsible for this complex and delicate issue? Is it the Department of the Environment, the Department of Education and Science or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or is it the Prime Minister who, as far as we know, has not gone back on what she

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told the House in 1981, which was that she was the Minister who was personally responsible for co-ordinating science policy? It is not easy.

Mr. Jackson : The Prime Minister has a general, overall responsibility as chairman of the relevant committee. However, it is an area of responsibility for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I have drawn his attention to the question and I am sure that he will consider its implications sympathetically.

Local Government Finance

5. Mrs. Mahon : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will meet representatives of those local education authorities which have been charge-capped to discuss the implications for education.

Mrs. Rumbold : My right hon. Friend has no plans to meet representatives of charge-capped authorities. The authorities designated for charge capping had the opportunity to put forward an alternative cap to that proposed by my right hon. Friend. Those who have done so have been given the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities or the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), to make oral representations.

Mrs. Mahon : Is not the Minister simply abandoning the children of the capped authorities? I draw her attention to the document--a copy of which I have placed on the board for the Minister--from the secondary heads of the Calderdale Secondary Head Teachers Association, which highlights the crisis that will occur in education in Calderdale should the Minister go ahead with the cap. May I also draw her attention to the discrepancy between the £1,799 spent on each pupil in Calderdale and the £2,961 spent on the private sector at Leeds grammar school? Is not that simply immoral?

Mrs. Rumbold : The hon. Lady misunderstands. The responsibility for the policy of charge capping rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. He will be making his decisions on the matter in due course. I also remind the hon. Lady that education is only one part of the total budget on which an authority is judged.

Mr. Donald Thompson : Calderdale council set a community charge of £450 and a safety net of £160 was granted by the Government. Is my hon. Friend aware of that? I hope that my hon. Friend also realises that Calderldale council has before it a budget, which could be instituted, that would reduce spending by £50 a head with no redundancies. Secondary school heads and others are appalled that the socialists push the children to one side.

Mrs. Rumbold : I respect my hon. Friend's views about his own local authority. It is perfectly true that Calderdale authority set its spending an excessive 21 per cent. higher, equivalent to £160, which is a considerable amount of money for each charge payer to pay. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's condemnation of his irresponsible authority.

Mr. Straw : Is not it shameful that the Secretary of State for Education and Science appears to have washed his

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hands of the consequences of poll tax capping on our schools? Given that one half of local authorities' total spending is on education, is the Minister saying that the Secretary of State takes no view as to whether poll tax capping will or will not harm education in those 20 areas?

Will the Minister now answer the question put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) : what conceivable justification can the Secretary of State for the Environment have for objecting to poll tax- capped authorities spending £1,900 or less per pupil when, in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, the Government are spending £4,650 on the fees of pupils at Kingswood school, a private day school? Does not that expose the deeply hypocritical double standards operated by the Government?

Mrs. Rumbold : The hon. Gentleman would be better placed were he aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is considering proposals for charge capping. When he has made up his mind and has come to the House with his view, the point will come when the total budget for local authorities confronted with any sort of cap is known and they can then decide for themselves where their priorities lie. That is a matter entirely for the local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman's question about the assisted places scheme was ridiculous. He should look closely at the figures that he is comparing, as he is not comparing like with like. Instead, he pursues the posh socialist's patronising view of the ability of working people to choose where their children go to school. What the people want is choice in education. They do not want to be directed by Opposition Members.

Mr. Hind : Will my hon. Friend look carefully at the charge-capped authorities and ensure that, when they reduce their expenditure on education, as I am sure many of them will, they do not do it with the maximum pain to parents and children and to maximise the political capital that they can make out of it? Will she also ensure that, where there is local management of schools, central bureaucracies at county hall are dismantled so that the money drifts downwards to the schools, where it is needed?

Mrs. Rumbold : I note with great interest what my hon. Friend said. He is obviously very knowledgeable about the way in which the education service is organised in his authority's area. It is for the local authorities, should they be confronted with charge capping, to make their own decisions. Of course, there is a route by which schools can ensure that they get the maximum amount of money from the local authority, and it is called seeking grant-maintained status.

Teachers' Pay and Conditions

6. Mr. Nellist : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations he has received about teachers' pay and conditions ; and if he will make a statement.

Mrs. Rumbold rose--

Hon. Members : Get on with it.

Mr. Speaker : Order. The Minister is having a busy time.

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Mrs. Rumbold : My right hon. Friend receives -- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I am afraid that there was so much reaction from the Benches below the Gangway that I did not hear the Minister's answer.

Mrs. Rumbold : I am happy, Mr. Speaker, to repeat that my right hon. Friend receives frequent representations on the pay and conditions of teachers.

Mr. Nellist : Has not the Minister even considered the representations from her Department's hand-picked interim advisory committee, which says that, given inflation, the offer made to teachers this year means that a majority of them will still be paid less in real terms this year than they were last? How is that supposed to help morale and to stop the haemorrhaging of teachers from the profession?

Mrs. Rumbold : It is interesting that the local authority in the hon. Gentleman's constituency has only recently adopted some of the flexible arrangements provided by the interim advisory committee over the past two years. If the authority follows the interim advisory committee's recommendations on flexibility more closely during the coming year, I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that some of his allegations about that committee's recommendations are far from accurate.

Mr. Norris : In areas such as west Essex, we are grateful for the special assistance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has given us to recruit teachers because of the high costs of housing. When monitoring organisations such as Reward have shown in regional surveys that the cost of living in London is about £8,000 a year more than it is in an average shire county, will my hon. Friend the Minister bear it in mind that we still need to do more to reflect those cost differentials if we are to attract the right people to teaching in the south-east?

Mrs. Rumbold : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no doubt that there is a requirement for greater flexibility within the south-east and the London area, particularly in the home counties, because of the clear differential between the cost of living and the cost of housing there and the costs in other areas where such things are not so expensive. The interim advisory committee has addressed that and one hopes that there will be continuing progress when any future negotiating machinery is set up.

Teacher Vacancies

8. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what were the latest estimated number of teacher vacancies in schools ; what were the similar figures for the same month in 1976 and 1979 ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Alan Howarth : In January 1989 there were 3,116 full-time teacher vacancies in maintained nursery and primary schools in England, and 2,424 in maintained secondary schools. We hope to be able to publish the 1990 survey results shortly.

No figures exist on teacher vacancies in 1976, and only secondary schools' figures for 1979. In January of that year there were 2,600 full-time vacancies in maintained secondary schools in England. Where we can make a direct

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comparison between secondary school vacancies in 1979 and 1989, we find that there were rather more vacancies in 1979.

Mr. Greenway : Is my hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and I addressed a packed meeting opposing vicious cuts in education and in the supply of teachers in January 1969 when the Labour Government were in office?

Mr. Cryer : Oh.

Mr. Greenway : The hon. Member for Blackburn was then president- elect of the National Union of Students.

By 1976 those of us who were running schools had to trawl the area to get teacher bodies to put before classes because there was such a shortage of teachers under that Labour Government. Will my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that everything possible will be done to ensure that the national curriculum goes ahead with a sound supply of good teachers to implement it?

Mr. Howarth : My hon. Friend speaks from his experience of the responsibility of running a school during the very difficult period when the previous Labour Government were cutting public expenditure. The House should heed what my hon. Friend said and we certainly do. No one should pretend that there will not be formidable difficulties in recruiting all the teachers whom we need during a period in which the demand for highly skilled manpower in the economy is growing and the number of people entering the work force is falling. That is why we have been introducing a range of measures targeting the problem. They include bursaries to attract teachers to train in shortage subjects ; new routes to qualifications for graduates and mature entrants ; support for distance learning courses and specific grants to support recruitment strategies for local education authorities in areas that face shortages.

Mr. Tony Banks : Is it true that there are about 1,300 teacher vacancies in London? Is not it also a fact that one reason why it is difficult to attract teachers to London and to retain them there is the price of property and rents? Does not the Minister accept some responsibility? Has he told his ministerial colleagues responsible for housing that if they had not destroyed the local authorities' house- building programme in London, perhaps the teacher shortage would not be quite so bad in the capital city as it is?

Mr. Howarth : London indeed faces exceptional problems in recruiting and retaining teachers. That is why we have directed special efforts towards helping the local education authorities in London and we shall continue to do that. On the hon. Gentleman's point about housing, I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to support the purchase of former Inner London education authority property by the London teachers' housing association.

Mr. Dunn : Is the Minister aware that there are particular problems in the recruitment and retention of teachers in London and the south-east? Will he undertake to inquire whether the Government intend to introduce regional pay or school-centred pay bargaining as a way around the problems that we in the south are experiencing?

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Mr. Howarth : Following the advice of the interim advisory committee, in the last three years the Government have introduced an extended range of flexibilities to enable employers, whether local education authorities or governors, to introduce greater differentials to take account of local difficulties in recruitment and retention which labour conditions and the cost of living in London and the south-east impose. About 175,000 teachers, a high concentration of them in London and the south-east, are now in receipt of incentive allowances. As a result of this year's pay settlement, there will be increased discretion for employers to award extra income and extra supplements.

Mr. Fatchett : Is the Minister aware that the Government will find it difficult to deal with the growing crisis of teacher shortage when--for the second consecutive year--they have imposed a cut in teachers' real standard of living? Is he further aware that the collapse in teacher morale, the fear of job losses through the introduction of LMS--local management of schools--and the events at Davenant school in Essex, where parents are being charged £50 to pay the teachers, will do little to help teacher morale but will simply create a situation in which more teachers will leave the profession and more parents will become demoralised, all as a result of the Government's stewardship of the education system?

Mr. Howarth : The hon. Gentleman should blush when making such references to pay. Under the last Labour Government, teachers' pay rose by 6 per cent.-- [Interruption.] That is a fact. Under the Conservatives, the real value of teachers' pay has risen by 30 per cent. Every time the hon. Gentleman and his Friends seek to portray the teacher supply situation in the lurid terms that they love to use, they exacerbate the problem. It would be good to hear from Opposition Members some recognition of the fact that in schools in, for example, some of the inner London boroughs, superb work is being done by teachers. Those local education authorities are working with might and main to recruit and retain the teachers they need and to give children better opportunities.

As for what has happened at Davenant school, my information, which is not complete, suggests that there was nothing in the LMS formula which would have required that school to shed teachers. Indeed, I imagine that as a result of the fund-raising efforts that the school community has undertaken it will find itself usefully better off.

Opting Out

9. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement about the number of opting-out ballots held under the Education Reform Act 1988.

14. Mr. Atkinson : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many secondary schools have held opting-out ballots to date.

Mrs. Rumbold : Parental ballots have been held at 92 schools and parents at 71 of those schools have voted in favour of an application for grant-maintained status. All but two of the schools were secondary schools.

Mr. Marshall : Is my hon. Friend aware that Hendon school, the first grant-maintained school in London, is

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now oversubscribed? Does she agree that that shows that such schools are popular with parents and teachers alike and illustrates the folly of the Opposition policy of abolishing grant- maintained schools, CTCs, grammar schools and the independent sector?

Mrs. Rumbold : Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The politics of envy will never do anything for the pupils in our schools. It is absolutely clear from the number of parents applying for their children to go to grant -maintained schools and city technology colleges that the number of applications has increased. The morale of teachers in the grant-maintained school sector is very high indeed. I believe that that has much to do with the fact that they are looking after their own affairs without intervention and are confident that they are giving the best possible education, without unnecessary intervention, to the children in their care.

Mr. Atkinson : While thanking my hon. Friend for the good news received yesterday that Bournemouth school for boys has been granted permission to receive the full benefits of self-govering status, may I ask whether she agrees that the demand for opting out comes much more from the governors of schools, who appreciate the benefits, rather than from parents, who remain largely uninformed of them? Will she consider initiating a new campaign to inform parents of the benefits of grant- maintained status?

Mrs. Rumbold : I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend is glad to learn that Bournemouth school has been accepted as a grant-maintained school, subject to a couple of technical agreements between us and it, but he must understand that the parents are the people who are balloted. They express through the ballot box, perfectly fairly and legitimately, their support for the grant-maintained policy. It is interesting that they are supporting it increasingly through the ballot box, and with success.

Mr. Rooker : What about the parents of pupils at Sylvan high school in Mr. Speaker's constituency who were balloted and voted against its becoming a city technology college, which was then imposed on them? The school has been wrecked, teacher morale has gone down the plughole and children are expected to study on a building site. How can the Minister say that the parents' views are paramount?

Mrs. Rumbold : The city technology college programme is exceedingly successful. We hear the politics of envy time and again from Opposition Members. Any kind of improvement, any sort of choice, any type of assistance from industry is always scorned. Conservative Members are interested in the pupils, in the best for the children and for the teachers. CTCs are one of the many policies that we have followed to achieve just that.

Mr. Straw : Does not the Minister's bluster disguise the fact that many leading Conservatives now oppose opting out and have lost confidence in it? Is she aware that Mr. Roy Schutz, Conservative chairman of the education committee in the Conservative borough of Barnet--the Prime Minister's own--has described an opted-out school in his constituency as an "unfettered dictatorship", and that the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), who used to have the Minister's job, has described opting out as "a side alley"? Is not the truth that, despite all the propoganda and bribes and the cynical use

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of school closure plans, the fact that fewer that 1 per cent. of all secondary schools and no primary schools at all have opted out shows how much the policy is an expensive and divisive flop?

Mrs. Rumbold : I often wish that the hon. Gentleman cared more about the children in the maintained sector and less about his own policies. The policy of offering grant-maintained school options is most important because it gives choice to the very people who care about their children.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman must have been misquoting Mr. Schutz, who is no longer the chairman of Barnet education authority. It would be as well if the hon. Gentleman got his facts right before coming to the Dispatch Box and reading rubbish from the newspapers, thereby misleading the general public and his colleagues about the policies that the Government are pursuing with great excellence.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Is my hon. Friend aware that teachers, parents and pupils-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Ten years of bad manners on the Labour Benches.

Does my hon. Friend accept-- [Interruption.] --that parents, teachers and pupils of Lancaster boys grammar school are delighted to have freed themselves from the stultifying control of Lancashire county council- - [Interruption.] --which dislikes grammar schools and over the years has deliberately starved the school of funds?

Is my hon. Friend aware that Lancaster girls grammar school voted 10 days ago to opt out-- [Interruption.] --and looks forward to substantial improvements if the application is approved?

Mrs. Rumbold : I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right--

Mr. Nicholas Winterton : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not think that many hon. Members heard what our hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) said. It seems that the microphones were not working during her excellent supplementary question.

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