Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Kilfoyle: It did so because it believed in choice for all of the people, not just for a select few--it is as simple as that.

Mr. Duncan: The hon. Gentleman must make clear his party's policy on grant-maintained status, because the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said:

"We are against inequity wherever it exists, and that is why we oppose grant-maintained status."--[ Official Report , 21 November 1994; Vol. 250, c. 430.]

His opposition had nothing to do with the amount of money that was offered to schools to choose grant-maintained status. It was about GM status in principle.

Mr. Kilfoyle: The hon. Gentleman is living proof that the new emphasis on English in the national curriculum is important. "Inequity" referred to inequity of funding. We have two objections to grant-maintained schools, one of which is that such status implies that schools will receive preferential funding. Hon. Members will be happy to know that the next Labour Government will be with us shortly. We have to look only at the polls showing that the Labour party has a 40 per cent. lead to realise that, which gives us some succour this morning. The next Labour Government guarantee to do two things in relation to GM schools. There will be no preferential funding of any sort. Secondly, GM schools will be brought into a framework of local democratic accountability.

We shall not go into the matter in the confrontational manner that the Government have shown in recent years. We shall speak to GM schools. We are happy to do so. We are happy to reach a consensus on how to bring them back into an equitable system. Not only that, but we are happy to speak to voluntary-aided schools.

Indeed, I would go further. We are happy to speak to the 300-plus private schools that are considering their future existence, not simply, I hasten to add, because of our views on those schools' charitable status or because

Column 542

of our view on assisted places, but because they realise that, even under the Government's market philosophy, the country is over-supplied with private schools. That is perhaps why, in my part of the world, two schools, the Upton convent school and, I think, St. Anselm's college, are considering opting back into the state system.

Mr. Duncan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be highly inequitable if a school were to retain its GM status and yet were to enjoy no extra money for the duties that it has taken on which the local authority used to perform on its behalf? If those schools assume some of the responsibilities of the local education authority, should they not be compensated for it, and would it not be inequitable if they were not?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I do not know whether to blame myself or the hon. Gentleman for the confusion between us, because I think that the matter is rather simple. We are talking about all schools being treated in a fair, honest and open-handed way and schools catering to the needs of individual schools and, more importantly, to pupils while catering to the wider community. One of the problems with GM schools is that they increasingly complicate the sort of strategic provision that needs to be made.

I should like to emphasise that we shall have discussions with all schools, whether local authority, grant-maintained or private, so that we achieve what the vast majority of people involved in education want--an equitable, accountable and efficient education system.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am just coming to my closing remarks, and I have taken many interventions.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has endorsed education as the passion of his future Labour Government, and rightly so. It is the route to not just economic success but personal fulfilment for the children who go through those schools and, later, on to higher education and beyond--that applies not just to some of our children but to all of them. They are our future. We have no right to do anything to jeopardise their life chances. That has been the Government's sorry record, but we are determined to give hope back to our young people and to give them faith and a stake in our society.

11.17 am

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me. May I explain to the House, with apologies, that I have to leave shortly after speaking for I have engagements in my constituency, particularly with children and others. I hope that the House will forgive me for that.

The rise in standards speaks for itself when one considers the results of testing at all ages, particularly the ages laid down under the national curriculum. GCSE results speak for themselves, with standards rising at a rapid rate in the number of children gaining A to C grades, to the extent that people are even wondering whether the marking is too lenient. I doubt it. I think that standards are rising. The same is true of A-levels. In 1979 at a school not very far from here, 35 children went on to universities; this year, the figure was 142. That is the level of the Government's achievement, and it shows that standards are rising.

Column 543

I went to a village school. When people call for independent schools to have the sort of assessment that is applied to grant-maintained schools, it is necessary to look at their good results. After all, the proof of the pudding is, in the end, in its eating. Their results speak for themselves.

The Labour party has long argued for neighbourhood comprehensive schools and, as far as I know, that is still its policy. The Labour party wants a monopoly, uniform system of comprehensive schools to which local children automatically go. What choice is there in that? If a Labour Government were to apply that policy, the Leader of the Opposition would not be allowed to send his child eight miles across London to a school in another area.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am intrigued by what the hon. Gentleman said, which I believe is a reference to the excellent results of grant-maintained schools. What evidence is there that their results are excellent when compared with those of other schools?

Mr. Greenway: The results of grant-maintained schools are there for all to see, but I was talking about independent schools. I thought that I had made that clear, but, if not, I do so now. If there were a uniform system of secondary education and parents could choose only their neighbourhood comprehensive school--if that is no longer Labour party policy I should be grateful to hear a repudiation--what parental choice would there be? Under that policy, the Leader of the Opposition would lose the choice that we have all defended.

Northolt high school is my constituency is grant- maintained. It saves £70,000 a year on cleaning alone now that the local authority--Ealing Labour council as it was and, unfortunately, as it now is again--no longer has responsibility for it. As an independent state school, it now runs its own cleaning services and saves £70,000 a year, which it would presumably lose were the Labour party to have its way. That money is now spent on books, pencils, rubbers and teachers.

Eighty-eight per cent. of secondary and 80 per cent. of primary grant- maintained schools have reported increased numbers of pupils. All primary schools and 77 per cent. of secondary schools in the GM sector are employing more teachers and 65 per cent. have introduced new subjects. More than half of them are spending more on books and 60 per cent. of GM schools achieved scores above the average of five GCSE grades A to C. I hope that that answers the question posed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). If he did not hear it, I hope that he will read the record.

As I said, the Labour party's policy was and is based on neighbourhood comprehensive schools. I lived in east London for some time at the Oxford university settlement in Bethnal Green. In that area, Labour's policy meant the elimination of the excellent Parmeter grammar school, which was a two- form entry school attended by 60 children a year. The Labour Government argued that the school had to be eliminated because its very existence and the fact that bright children could go there was wrecking the neighbourhood

comprehensives. Labour has always believed that all children, especially the bright ones, must

Column 544

be made to go to state schools because that in itself will raise the schools' standards. However, they do not apply that rule to themselves.

The education officer for Islington is a former assistant master of mine and a fine fellow. The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) will know plenty about him. His job will be made more difficult by the fact that the Leader of the Opposition has not chosen an Islington school for his son but wants to send him across London. What does that do to my former colleague's attempts to do a good job in Islington and to Labour's argument that bright children must attend local schools in order to raise standards? When it comes down to it, the Labour party runs away, which is deplorable and hypocritical. I shall refer to grant-maintained schools again if I have time, but I wish to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Walton. He rightly said that the permanent exclusion of children from school is a matter of great importance. We now have a much more acceptable and honest system in that local authorities are required to provide alternative education for those children. Therefore, I hope that the situation will settle down after the present explosion of permanent exclusions.

I do not like children being excluded from school because, as all hon. Members who were formerly in the teaching profession will know, the children who are excluded tend to be the very ones who most need to be in school. The Government have now introduced a legal requirement that they must have schooling. I welcome that and will wait to see how the system works.

We must re-examine school discipline. No satisfactory alternative has been found to corporal punishment, which was a quick and good way to deal with some cases of indiscipline. It is not a panacea, and I am not suggesting that it solves everything, but if a boy had a stroke of the cane he would not need to be excluded or suspended. I must stress that I am not talking about brutality, of which no one would approve. However, an alternative may exist in the new requirement placed on local authorities.

Mr. Kilfoyle: What does the hon. Gentleman make of the suggestion that there is a relationship between the increasing number of exclusions and the desire to remove from a school low achievers who might damage that school's eventual league table position? Does he accept that a school could be tempted to think in that way?

Mr. Greenway: No, I do not accept that. With the exception of one, all secondary schools in my constituency have grant-maintained status. They are doing extremely well, but they take their fair share of pupils from all ability ranges, including children with social and other problems. Whatever system was devised, they would do well. I believe that school journeys to activity centres and outward bound courses are very important. They are a crucial part of a child's education. Some children benefit enormously--and all could do so--from such courses on which they compete against themselves, each other or the environment. I am thinking of activities such as canoeing, mountaineering and horse riding.

When I was the deputy headmaster at Sir William Collins school in King's Cross--with which the hon. Member for Barking might be familiar as we drew children from Islington--I devised a horse riding and stable management course paid for by the ratepayers of

Column 545

London through the London county council, as it then was, and the Inner London education authority. It was a great success. However, horse riding is one of the most dangerous sports, so the ILEA and the LCC and its excellent inspectorate devised a system whereby no child could be taught at a horse riding centre that was not approved by the British Horse Society. That guaranteed that the teaching was always undertaken by a qualified instructor; that the horses were safe and sensible--so far as one can ever be sure of that--and that the teaching conditions were acceptable.

Teachers who accompany children on such courses must have some understanding of what the children will be required to do. I was allowed to make suggestions to the LCC and ILEA, and we devised courses to ensure that every teacher who accompanied children on curriculum riding and stable management courses knew what the proper standards should be and what was safe and unsafe. Teachers were part of the means of achieving those proper standards for children. All the children were required, for example, to wear a hard hat. If they did not do so or did not want to do so, they were not allowed to ride. Many of the girls did not like to wear a riding hat because they thought it was a bit unglamorous, but it is now law that children under 14 must wear a hard hat when riding.

It is important to ensure that the teacher accompanying children on adventure trips, as well as those teachers who provide the training at the centres, are properly qualified, because that helps to reassure parents that tragedies such as the canoeing tragedy which was resolved before the courts yesterday do not recur.

In my 23 years of teaching, I took 40 groups of children on various adventure courses--they must be seen as courses, not holidays and trips. I took them skiing to 15 different countries, as well as on courses to learn how to ride, climb and sail. In every case, I made it my business--I was not required to do so by the LCC--to ensure that the children were taught by people qualified in the relevant discipline. As their teacher, I always took part in the activity as well. All too often, teachers do not participate, so the children do not dedicate their attention to the activity, which leads to trouble.

Ms Hodge: I am interested to note how the hon. Gentleman has described ILEA's excellent record of providing extra-curricular activities in inner London for children who often could not afford or did not have the opportunity to take part in such activities. Does he agree that it is regrettable that, because of the pressures on time in the school day and in the school year caused by the national curriculum and the greater pressures on finances, most children from inner London no longer enjoy the opportunities that were available to them when the hon. Member was a teacher under ILEA?

Mr. Greenway: I do not accept that. All children in inner London have access to such activities through one means or another. I need not go into the whys and wherefores, but people raise money to help individual children--I am one who does just that. Such groups have always existed, because trips were not just offered through the benevolence of the LCC, in the name of the ratepayers, and ILEA. I remind the hon. Member for Barking that although ILEA was a good education

Column 546

authority in its day, by the time it was disbanded it was reviled for its low standards and the under-achievement of its children, which it facilitated and tolerated.

If teachers who take children on a ski trip understand about skiing and snow craft, they will know why it is not possible to ski in certain places because of avalanches. It is not always possible for a course teacher, who may not speak the same language as the children, to explain that properly. People who teach children soccer may be professional instructors from football clubs or school teachers who are required to have the Football Association's refereeing certificate. We also expect those who teach cricket to have the Middlesex county cricket club's coaching certificate and for those teachers who coach pupils in other sports to have the relevant certificate. It is therefore right that teachers who accompany children on adventure trips should have a relevant qualification in the activity taught at those adventure centres.

Mr. Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman is a decent person, and I agree with much of what he has said. I believe, however, that many school trips are too ambitious, because children are sent across the continent. The hon. Gentleman has spoken about ski trips, but most children will not keep up that exercise when they are older, and it costs a lot to hire equipment. We should have more school trips across the channel so that children can experience another country, another language and another culture without having to go too far across the continent. Why can we not have more trips around the United Kingdom? Many kids do not see outside the south-east of England and do not enjoy the rich cultural differences of the United Kingdom, which is a great pity.

Mr. Greenway: School journeys of an educational nature, not trips, are important whether they are made inside or outside the United Kingdom.

I took 34 children from King's Cross to the Tartar mountains of Poland to ski. A lot of those boys were poor and they took on jobs, such as delivering newspapers, to pay for the trip. We made that trip into a great school project--in fact, some children made it an individual or family project. In every way, such journeys are enormously helpful to a school. I also took children to Czechoslovakia and to France.

There are many aspects to an adventure centre journey. It is not just a question of learning how to do an activity, but how children build up to that journey and what they get out of it, including language enrichment and the experience of being with people of a different culture. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) tempts me to go down a rich road, but I shall resist the temptation. 11.37 am

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): First, I apologise and say that I am genuinely disappointed because I probably will be unable to stay long enough for the concluding speeches. I have a surgery in Hemsworth in the early afternoon and I must get back for it. I should like to take a somewhat picaresque look at the debate on education. In view of many of the remarks that have been made, we should recall how universal education came about. It was not because of a wise and percipient House of Commons-- indeed, least of all that--but because local people urged upon their communities the value of education.

Column 547

Education grew from the grass roots. It sprang up from there: it was a natural creation. A lot of people, including many Irish immigrants, worked extremely hard to ensure that there was literacy in the working classes. The old elementary schools were founded and did a fine job. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have one of the oldest elementary buildings still standing in your constituency. Whenever we talk about education, it is important that we relate it to local people as well as to our national aims.

I should like to examine two important aspects of education that have not been considered this morning. The first is the teaching force.

As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) declared an interest, I suppose that I had better do the same. My interest is that I am an adviser to all my constituents in Hemsworth on education and to no teaching union. Teaching unions have a proper job to perform--I do not knock them in any way--but they are not the key to the success of the teaching force. We really must do something about dynamising that resource.

Our document proposes a general teaching council. That is not a new idea, or something that has been instantly thought up. It has been around for a long time. The importance of a general teaching council is that it could unite teachers who are currently fragmented into their various unions, as the hon. Member for Bath illustrated in declaring his interest. It could look at what teachers do and say to them, "You must have pride in yourselves. This is how you can improve yourselves. This is the assistance that we can give."

A general teaching council would not be about sacking teachers but about giving teachers enhanced standards. There are good teachers, mediocre teachers and poor teachers. A general teaching council could bring up best practice to ensure that, within the teaching force, we could have pride in the profession. I make no political point when I say that it is objectively true that, for one reason or another, teachers have become extremely depressed about their standing. A general teaching council could give that pride back. It could provide practical courses. It could ensure the sort of the training that is not occurring now. It could be a body well qualified to recommend training.

A general teaching council is important in enhancing the standard of teaching of all our children. Equally important is a British association for the advancement of education. That is another proposal we make. I accept that it would be a quango, but it would certainly not be a political quango. We would consider putting in charge a person such as Claus Moser and peopleof that ilk, including representatives of parents and teachers to ensure that teaching and the general aims of the Government's policies in teaching were put into a world perspective as well as a national perspective. There is a general problem in educational research. Some of our colleges of higher education have become so squeezed that less and less educational research is being done except in very specialised areas. No one is able to sit back and take a long, cool and calm look at practices in other countries and whether they would apply here. I am bound to say that some of the experiments properly carried out in schools rely on American experience and research, but that research has not been confirmed here.

Column 548

That can be dangerous. The research can apply and the experiment can work well, but what is desirable for New York is not necessarily desirable for Hemsworth.

Indeed, I would go further. This is a tripartite point. Far too often, we have had a look at London and what was wrong with the Greater London council and the Inner London education authority, and then decided to apply that to the entire country. That is wrong. I hope that, in their first attempt to put right policy on nursery schools, the Government do not fall into the trap of seeing what works in London and letting it go forth. That would be a disaster. The curriculum has been much on everyone's mind. I must confess that I am not a great devotee of the national curriculum and particularly not of the way in which it has been expanded. In his interventions, the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) showed precisely what could be wrong with the national curriculum and testing. What he talked about was a sort of quiz show: we put together a body of knowledge, and when the various buttons are pressed people bring out the appropriate response.

That is not education. It is stuffing information into people. It is not drawing out of people their capabilities, but putting in bits of information. It is not teaching them. I do not say that the national curriculum is completely bound up along that path, but it is in grave danger of going that way.

The link between the curriculum and testing has to be carefully examined to make sure that we do not get in the way of real education in the process. I have no objections whatever to testing. It is perfectly valid to test. Most teachers did their own tests before testing was introduced, because it was a quick and easy way of finding out whether our pupils understood what had been said. One of the difficulties with grant-maintained schools is that they have diminished the ability of education authorities to provide certain specialist services. The balance between the education authority and individual schools must be maintained. That includes the provision to every school of services for children with special needs and, perhaps above all, what we used to call truancy officers and now call educational welfare officers.

Educational welfare officers are crucial in solving the problem of truancy. It is a genuine problem, particularly in inner cities or deprived areas. It is much more likely that people will truant in those areas than elsewhere. We need a good supply of educational welfare officers.

Two things militate against that. One is that LEAs are sometimes too small to afford the experienced team which is necessary. The second is that that is compounded when central money is taken away from LEAs and given to grant -maintained schools. LEAs have to perform a service without having the money to do so, so the service declines. We have certainly seen that happen in the past five years. I hope that the Minister will take the problem seriously and examine it to see what can be done. Of course, what can be done is simply to provide extra resources.

The same problem occurs with LEA educational advisers. LEA educational advice services have been run down. Clearly, an authority which is strapped for cash will get rid of such people first, because they are not in schools. That has consequences for the curriculum and for the quality of education in the local schools. An outstanding example of that is in religious education.

Column 549

Religious education in state schools is in a considerable crisis because we do not have enough full-time RE teachers. We do not have enough people who may teach physics, French or English but who are willing to do a couple of periods of RE. That is not necessarily because they are opposed to religious education, but because they are not confident about how to teach it. They are certainly not confident about teaching it to the quality which is essential if religious education in schools is to be worth while.

Previously, that function was fulfilled by local authority advisers in religious education. They were able to run very good courses on a curriculum that had been agreed locally among a multitude of Churches. That worked very well, but if one is cutting one's local authority advisers, they are the people who will go before one's adviser in physics, one's adviser in English or one's adviser in mathematics. I do not blame local authorities, of whatever hue, for doing it that way round, but it is a problem of which we should be aware, and about which it is crucial that we do something. On the principle of grant-maintained schools, I hope that I have put grant-maintained into a specific context, so that it is not simply about grant-maintained. The policy of the Labour party, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said, is absolutely clear: when we come into Government, grant-maintained schools will return to local democratic accountability. There is absolutely no need for grant-maintained schools to worry about that. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) had something to say about that.

I quote from a letter from a head teacher whose school, incidentally, is one of the top schools, whose results, even on the raw statistics, in a working class area, are as good as any: "I read with interest a front page article in the Times Educational Supplement last week which refers to Grant Maintained Schools."

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is

"quoted as saying `I want to know the underlying reasons for schools becoming Grant Maintained, apart from those which are purely ideological'. I offer the following comments which may be of some help . . .

I recently attended a conference for Catholic Grant Maintained Schools. Though we are not a Grant Maintained school and are more than happy to be within the LEA maintained sector it is important that we are made aware of the alternatives which are open to us. It was in this sense that I attended the meeting in Warrington. I listened to several of my colleagues extolling the virtues of Grant Maintained status but was struck with the very small difference between their independence and our own. Most of those Catholic schools which are Grant Maintained took the step before having any deep experience of LMS and have therefore not had the freedom as LMS Voluntary Aided schools that we have enjoyed . . . None of them had done anything which we either had not done or could not have done had we chosen to do so.

The only exception being that generous government grants direct to the school had made it possible for them to replace and renew accommodation and facilities. It made me quite envious. My envy was short lived since it is clear that government resources at the disposal of these schools in such generous amounts has denied them to more deserving schools: hardly the generous sharing or concern for the weak required of Christians. It was comforting too to

Column 550

appreciate the extra bureaucratic procedures which are involved and the demands made in terms of accounting procedures in order that the government department or FAS can be satisfied."

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not least because I also spoke at that conference, and he reminds me of an entertaining time.

Although none of us would deny the author of that letter the absolute right to hold the opinion that he or she expresses, it must also be said that GM heads move themselves among a gathering of other heads who remain in LEA schools and are well aware of, as the author of that letter would put it, the perceived advantages of being an LEA school. In spite of that, as the hon. Gentleman knows from the most recent Times Educational Supplement survey, a massive 90 per cent. or more have no intention or wish to go back under the LEA, in spite of knowing those perceived apparent advantages.

Mr. Enright: Of course that is true, but as soon as funding becomes fair instead of weighted, it will be a very different question.

Let me say this about the selfishness of some grant-maintained schools. We know, because we have the statistics--the Government kindly provided them to us--that the biggest increase in expulsions from schools happened in Essex from grant-maintained schools: a massive 70 per cent. increase. That happened because grant-maintained schools do not want to tackle difficult cases, and the difficult cases are therefore being left to be considered by the other schools. That is a serious dilemma.

We have a serious problem to confront of disruptive and difficult schoolchildren. That has to be considered in a regional context rather than a national context, because that is the best way of tackling it. We must prevent what is currently happening--people being kicked out of grant- maintained schools and their pieces picked up by schools that have chosen to remain in local authority control. I am conscious that many other hon. Members are waiting to speak, so I will not mention many of the subjects that I had wished to. However, I make one plea to the Minister--an eternal plea of mine. That is a plea for the teaching of modern languages in primary schools, which could have the most tremendous effect.

It is not impossible to put together a strategy with local authority advisers, or something of that ilk, to help to teach specific primary school teachers how to introduce language. We could in that way get it going sooner rather than later. It is an important lesson that we can learn from the continent, and I hope that the Minister will consider it carefully.

11.58 am

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes): I ask the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) to excuse me if I do not follow him entirely in his line of argument, although, as always, it is interesting to hear that argument developed, especially about education.

I start by congratulating the Government most sincerely on the steps that have been taken, not only in recent years, but in the past dozen or so years, to improve standards in education. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools to pass on personally

Column 551

to my hon. Friend the Minister of State my congratulations on his review of what has been done, which was comprehensive and persuasive, in spite of some of the shrapnel that came across the Floor of the House during that review.

I wish to link with those congratulations, congratulations to the schools in my constituency, none of which are grant-maintained--the secondary schools in Lewes, Ringmer, Newhaven and Seaford, and small and large primary schools throughout the constituency, which consistently provide considerable high-quality education for their children, often in old- fashioned buildings. I have never attached great importance to old- fashioned buildings--I was educated in a very old-fashioned building, albeit in the private sector--but the teachers give absolutely first-rate education, and that is already showing in some of the commentary about them and the ranking of them that is now being made available.

I should like to end my congratulations by applauding the Government on their promise to provide those involved in teaching and education with some stability now. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) referred to the stresses that the teaching fraternity and sorority have had to suffer in recent years in adapting to change. There is no doubt that it has been stressful, particularly for older teachers, who have naturally become more set in their ways. It will be welcome news to them to hear that there is now to be a period of consolidation and catching of breath, and a digestion of the steps that have been taken.

I should like to make three specific points. The first relates to the teaching of mathematics. Not only is mathematics a good discipline per se, but it is essential for the pursuit of physical sciences and engineering in all its parts. Mathematics is a crucial part of the education of students, whatever they are going to do in the rest of their lives. It is particularly important if they are to pursue studies in engineering and become the engineers of the future. I do not think that I have to remind the House of the crucial part that engineering plays in the prosperity of our industry and, through that, the prosperity of manufacturing and of our country. A few years ago, Sussex university, which is situated in and near my constituency, had to devote the best part of a term of a new intake to bringing the students up to the required standard for their courses, particularly those studying engineering, mathematics and physical sciences. The position is improving, but it needs to get better still.

I congratulate the Government on lowering the barriers between what has historically been referred to as education, and what has recently been referred to as training. Education, re-education, training and retraining are part and parcel of the lifelong effort of preparing oneself for the changing years to come. In that context, schooling, further education, university, the importance of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and schemes such as company training schemes--a magnificent one has been developed at Brighton university, which now runs the largest company training centre in the country--cannot be underestimated .

The second point that I wish to raise--nursery schooling--was mentioned by the hon. Member for Walton. I welcome the Government's reconversion to nursery schooling. I call it "reconversion", because many

Column 552

hon. Members will remember that a Conservative Education Minister who went on to become Prime Minister was committed to the theory and importance of nursery schooling. Sadly, the aim was not achieved during her period of premiership, but, under the guidance and dedication of the present Prime Minister, who has committed himself to it, the policy has now reappeared as an important thrust within the educational system.

Both nurseries and schooling are important. We are not talking about simply care, play or teaching, but a subtle combination of all three. Nursery schooling is therefore different from primary school learning and teaching. Good nursery schooling is different from pre-entry school classes. I stress that point, because it would be a mistake for the Government, when planning nursery schooling on a broader basis than currently exists, to think that it is akin to, or can be made up by, the extension of pre-school entry teaching. It is particularly important to note its difference in terms of pupil-teacher requirements--a subject touched on in another context. It is generally accepted that there has to be a higher teacher-pupil ratio in nursery schooling than in primary and secondary schooling. We must take that into account when planning.

Nursery schooling is different from playgroups, although play is an important part of nursery schooling and developing a child's character. There have been worrying reports recently that the Government might choose the Playgroups Association, which does a marvellous job in organising, supervising and professionally running play groups, as the basis for an extension of nursery schooling. That association and its members do not have the awareness or capacity to teach. The essential element of nursery schooling that distinguishes it from playgroups, creches, nurseries and care of any sort for children of pre-school age is the teaching element.

I think it was the hon. Member for Walton who said that nursery schooling was not just important per se in extending educational years downwards. Only nursery schooling will enable children to obtain the maximum benefit from whatever schooling they go on to attend--primary, secondary and further education.

A magnificent piece of research from America--which traced people from nursery school age up to, I think, 30--shows that those that have attended nursery schooling have done better in life. Their families have been more secure, and they have become better members of their communities. No element of education is more important than nursery schooling. I hope that the Government will quickly take steps to provide the facility for all four -year-olds and, as soon as possible, extend it to three-year-olds as well.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a recent interview that the Secretary of State gave on the David Frost programme, when two significant factors emerged? First, the Secretary of State refused to give a timetable for the introduction of nursery education for the children of all those who want it. Secondly, she could not even define exactly what was meant by nursery education.

Mr. Rathbone: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was probably being wise in taking those two positions. First, the provision should start when we are able to do so. No one in the House or anywhere in the country would want to pick up a policy proposition--to

Column 553

start making nursery schooling available for all those who want it for their children between the ages of four and five- -until the necessary facilities are available. It would be infantile to adopt any other attitude.

As to the definition of nursery schooling, the Government are still on a learning curve in terms of nursery schooling, because they have taken a long time to accept the need for it. I doubt that there is a complete awareness of what nursery schooling is, even though I have offered the Government assistance over the years, and wrote a pamphlet on the subject five or six years ago. I hope that I have made a little contribution to the decisions that have been taken so far.

I believe that an entirely sensible reaction was given by an extremely sensible Secretary of State to a probing question designed merely to hook a politician and to persuade her to make a commitment that she could then be shown not to have lived up to.

My third point has to do with health education. I have corresponded with the Minister--in his previous capacity as well as his present one--for many years about the need for better health education to tackle the increasing problem of drug and substance misuse. I have had my differences with the Government, especially over the withdrawal of funding for what used to be drugs education co-ordinators and subsequently became health education co- ordinators. I could not understand how that decision was ever arrived at-- but let bygones be bygones.

Under the new drug strategy, there is a re-emphasis of the need for the Government to come to grips with demand reduction. Demand for drugs and other substances can be reduced only by better health education in schools. So I tip my hat to the Minister and the Secretary of State for their consultative paper, put out by the Department for Education, on future health education. I wish them well in their efforts.

I also value the encouragement and help being given to schools to persuade them to adopt a policy on this subject. It is crucial that schools have a policy; it is only against such a policy that teachers can make their best health education contribution, and parents can know how schools intend to react to circumstances as they arise. In this context, I should like to recommend a good guide for governors of schools produced by the London Drugs Forum only a few weeks ago. If the Minister has not seen it, I suggest that it is worth studying. Perhaps the Government should help to ensure its wider distribution around the country.

Two things worry me still. First, too many political speeches claim that drugs education is included in the curriculum. Technically that may be so-- it is a small part of the science curriculum--but that does not constitute health education. As part of the curriculum, the subject is taught in the same way as facts about amoebae, frogs, birds or bees. We are deceiving ourselves and attempting to deceive others if we attempt to argue otherwise. Information about drug misuse and attitudes towards it is not included in the biological curriculum. Both are important in health education. Every teacher in every school must be in a position to make some sort of contribution.

We all know that each pupil in a school enjoys a special relationship with a particular teacher. If that relationship does not permit the teacher to understand a drugs problem and react positively to it, teachers will clearly not be equipped to make their best contribution.

Column 554

My second worry concerns the amount of funding for the new Government scheme for the teaching of teachers. It is likely--although not certain--that education authorities will experience a shortfall in the funds needed to mount, and successfully to execute, a teaching of teachers scheme so that there will be a teacher in each school who is proficient in teaching better health to its pupils.

Just as nursery education is the best foundation for the rest of education and of life, so a better appreciation of the value of good health is the foundation for a healthier life, and the only way we shall ever get to grips with the problems of drug misuse. Young people must be persuaded never to get involved with drugs in the first place.

12.14 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate, if at times somewhat confusing. I have rarely listened to a Conservative Member speak with whom I have found myself in absolute agreement, but such was the case as I listened to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone). I suspect that he will not agree with everything that I intend to say, however.

I agreed with the hon. Member for Lewes about the importance of a period of stability and reflection in our education service. He was also absolutely right about the importance of mathematics in the curriculum. As a former physics teacher, I entirely share his thoughts on that. I also welcomed his comments on nursery education, and the crucial distinction that he drew between it and, on the one hand, early entry into reception class, and on the other, playgroups. He noted that nursery education is the key to providing people with the right start.

I also share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety that the Government may try to meet the Prime Minister's commitment by way of providing major financial support for the Playgroups Association instead of providing nursery education. Like the hon. Gentleman, however, I welcome the Conservative party's reconversion to the idea of nursery education. I know, too, that the hon. Gentleman's views on health education and drugs will be widely shared in this House.

I said that this had been a slightly confused debate, but there have also been several points of agreement--although I was not always entirely sure whether the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) agreed with the rest of us. Nevertheless, I certainly agreed with what the Minister of State said about the purpose of the whole educational endeavour.

He talked of enabling every individual to develop his or her potential. That was the key, he said, to what education was about. The Liberal Democrat policy document states:

"Our objective is to enable each individual to achieve his or her full potential by creating a first class education for all, in which quality is the key. We aim to provide not just excellence for a select few, but excellence for all."

No doubt the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary of State would entirely agree with that. So when we discuss how to raise standards in education, we are debating the means, not the ends. That is where the major differences between the political parties arise. It is therefore important that each political party be clear, internally and with a wider audience, about what means it favours. I agree with the Minister and with

Next Section

  Home Page