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9.20 pm

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): As an Arsenal fan who has been sitting in the Chamber while we have been playing possibly the most important European game in our career, I am especially grateful to be called to speak in the debate.

I have sat through two education debates, and I am still no clearer about the official Opposition's policy on schools. Last night the shadow Chancellor failed to say whether he would rule out charging for hospitals. This afternoon the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) did not say whether he supports his leader's policy of vouchers for schools. Neither would say whether he supports his leader's position of cutting public spending as a share of gross domestic product.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): What on earth has that got to do with the Bill?

James Purnell: I was about to go on to that. The Opposition's policy is unclear, so I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Ashford said that it will take him months and possibly years before he comes up with a policy.

The Opposition's main argument seems to be that there is too much interference in our schools. I remind them that the main restriction on our schools is the national curriculum, which was introduced by the Conservatives. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher states in her biography:

Through the Bill, Labour is starting finally to roll back that tide of prescription. Now that we have good measures of what schools can achieve, we no longer need to tell them in so much detail how to achieve it.

I welcome the Bill not just because of its detail, but because of the big picture that it represents. It represents a Government who are committed to creating a meritocracy not only through their measures on education, but through their commitment to ending child poverty. We believe that the two go hand in hand.

Four tests will allow us to meet that vision, the first of which is funding. The Government are putting in the funding necessary to raise standards in our schools. In the previous debate on the subject, the Opposition tried to deny that the amount of money going into education as a proportion of national income was going up. In fact, it has gone up from 4.7 per cent. to 5 per cent.

My second test is teachers. I declare an interest: my grandparents and my mother were teachers. They did, indeed, read The Guardian, although my grandparents eat porridge rather than Alpen and wear sensible shoes rather than sandals. I have often had to defend the description in The Guardian of what the Government have been doing in the past four years. More has been done for teachers in that time than under any other Government in recent memory, including last year the biggest rise in teachers' income that they have had for almost a decade.

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The third test is diversity. I support specialist schools. I have no problem with offering a wide range of choice to children in our schools. For too long, children at the top and at the bottom of the ability range have not been tested enough. Children of low ability have been branded as failures because the school did not allow them to develop their skills.

My fourth test is real choice in schools. In an earlier contribution, Nye Bevan was quoted. I thoroughly endorse the view that there is no point in choice if it is the schools that are choosing the pupils, rather than the pupils who are choosing the school. That is why I welcome the provisions to increase the ability of the LEA to intervene in schools that are failing and to intervene earlier.

I welcome in particular the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ensuring that we can create more schools in our system. I also welcome greatly the provisions to allow governors to form federations and to bring new schools into the system. I hope that, if the tests that I have mentioned can be met before this Parliament comes to an end, we will have seen significant improvements in all our schools to match those achieved in primary schools. I hope also that, after the period of months or even years that will be involved, the Opposition will finally have a policy on education.

9.25 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) was commendably brief, but perhaps he will decide on reflection that, on balance, he would have been better off watching the Arsenal match. I am sure that his predecessor was doing precisely that.

We have had a wide-ranging debate. Perhaps it is inevitable when a Bill contains so little detail and such wide-ranging and sweeping powers that debate on it should also range so widely. None the less, we have heard some very good contributions, and the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) rightly paid tribute to the work of the Shaw Trust in his constituency. We started off with a very strong attack from the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on faith schools, including both proposed and existing ones.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis)—he and I look forward to having, in the coming weeks, many exchanges of the sort that we have had on education Bills in the past—demonstrated once again that he failed to appreciate the difference between parents choosing grant-maintained status and what the Secretary of State now wants to do to schools and LEAs on a whim and at her own discretion. He also shared with us a depressing vision of monolithic and undifferentiated schools. I am pleased to join the Government in so far as they go in seeking a more exciting and innovative vision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) spoke about special needs in rural areas and the problems of special educational needs teachers who have to travel on long and time-consuming journeys. He argued that that matter was not addressed in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who made an important contribution, said that the main reason for teachers leaving the profession was disruption by pupils. He spoke especially about the importance and effectiveness of zero tolerance in the classroom. He also pointed out the philosophical

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difference between the Government and the Opposition and spoke about the fact that we believe in real freedom for schools, while they believe in devolution that is subject only to the approval of every detail by the Secretary of State. The importance of setting out clear criteria for the judgment of successful schools was also one of his key points.

The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), my parliamentary neighbour, made an excellent speech. He will be distressed to hear that I agreed with most of his remarks. He rightly said that poverty must not be an excuse for under-achievement. However, he also welcomed the admissions forum being put on to a statutory basis. It may be a cause of concern to grammar schools that somebody who is such a strong opponent of the selective system welcomes that new arrangement. He went on to make a measured defence of faith schools, on which we are again at one. Indeed, we agree also on the value of specialist schools within a selective framework as elsewhere, however much we may differ about the selective framework itself.

The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) is opposed to specialist schools, privatisation and selection. He welcomed the devolved powers for Wales, although he regretted the Bill's failure to devolve powers in respect of pay and conditions. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) was worried about the Bill leading not to diversity, but to fragmentation. He saw in the Bill an attempt to "dispatch" the comprehensive system, as he put it. He also rightly wondered why innovation could be good only for successful schools and asked whether it might be a way of improving schools that are not so successful at present. I look forward to his contributions in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) spoke strongly in favour of diversity and the importance of specialist schools, faith schools and new schools. He asked whether resources would be available to achieve the Government's targets for specialist schools. That is an important question. He flagged up the fact that there are not enough teachers who specialise in languages or enough sports teachers to staff specialist schools. He spoke tellingly of the head teacher in his constituency who manned a stall in Sainsbury's in a desperate effort to recruit teachers.

Several hon. Members spoke in the debate and made excellent contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) made an important speech. He spoke of the mounting crisis in teaching, resulting especially from micro-management and interference. Teachers feel that they cannot make decisions and that they have no control over their working lives. He asked why the Bill was silent about teachers' workload and made some sensible proposals for tackling that.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) called for head teachers and teachers to have free rein. He must be disappointed with the Bill, which imposes so many restrictions on the circumstances in which schools can expect any genuine freedom to innovate. Like many hon. Members, especially Labour Members, he sounded a warning about a deliberate policy of extending faith schools. He called for a wider debate in Committee and in another place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) drew attention to the gap between the rhetoric of freedom and the practice of central control in

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the Government's proposals. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who is not in his place, initiated an interesting discussion on the role of governing bodies. He also doubted the evidence for the success of faith schools and specialist schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) supported faith schools and spoke about the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention and the problems of classroom discipline. She expressed special anxiety for the future of special schools.

At the beginning of the debate, the Secretary of State said that the Bill provided for new ways of tackling failure. She must acknowledge that the measure is a response to the Government's failures over the past four and a half years. She and I remember the Government's second education measure, the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. She knows that many provisions of the current Bill turn the approach that was taken in the earlier measure on its head. Indeed, in introducing innovation only in successful schools, she has taken the opposite approach to that of only four years ago, when the Government sought to introduce it in failing schools. She claims that she will grant the power to free schools, but only for a pilot period. If innovation is going to work, why limit it to three years?

The Secretary of State also said that a consultation paper would be published on education for 14 to 19-year-olds in the new year. I hope that the Minister will guarantee publication before the Committee has reached clauses 81 and 82. I hope that he will give that assurance now or when he responds to the debate in a few moments.

The Secretary of State's only defence of the sweeping Henry VIII clauses and powers—those to control LEA budgets and for suspension and exemption from all education legislation—seemed to be that they will be used sparingly. To coin a phrase, she is legislating for the few, not the many.

We need time to debate such a far-reaching Bill. Debate has been curtailed today because the measure was scheduled for Second Reading on the same day as a major, predictable statement on local government finance as well as an important ten-minute Bill. It is essential for the usual channels to ensure a decent interval between Second Reading and the Committee stage so that outside bodies can make representations, and a suitable period in Committee for exploring concerns.

That view is expressed particularly strongly in the comments on the Bill made by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. It states:

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