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What I am struggling to understand about the Conservative document launched yesterday—I have not read it in detail; I have heard bits about it—is how
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the new education policy of Cameron’s Conservatives, who are trying to be touchy-feely, liberal, progressive modernisers, is in any way different from the policy of Thatcher’s Conservatives. The Conservatives still have a fundamental commitment to wholesale privatisation and fragmentation of the system and to seeing the individual school as the basic unit, not understanding the need for schools to operate within a co-operative framework.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that many Conservatives still covertly believe in the policy encapsulated in the phrase “A grammar school in every town”? That is their real, secret agenda, is it not?

Mr. Chaytor: My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is the hidden agenda, and we could see that from the expression on the shadow Secretary of State’s face. Throughout his speech, he found it extremely difficult to keep a straight face, in his new-born commitment to liberal, progressive modernity. Indeed, I would go further back. The shadow Secretary of State spoke about the miraculous assumptions of some aspects of Government policy, but he was the personification of miraculous assumptions, in what he was saying about the way forward. He combined that with a kind of immaculate conception. It was almost as if Keith Joseph had come back to speak to us. Indeed, there was nothing that he said with which Keith Joseph would have disagreed.

It seems to me—I am looking to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) to clarify this, because he is a thoughtful Member of Parliament—that the Conservatives’ approach is riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, they keep telling us that they want to give more freedom to schools and head teachers, pass down more power to parents, lift the dead hand of bureaucracy, move away from the command economy and take centralisation out of the system. On the other, they want to tell every pupil in the country that they must keep their shirts firmly tucked in their trousers and every teacher that every time anyone walks through their classroom door, every child in that classroom must—day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out—stand to attention. That is a level of prescription that Joseph Stalin could not have dreamed of, and it blows out of the water any commitment to trusting the professional judgment of teachers and head teachers that the Conservatives want us to believe they support.

Angela Watkinson: What the hon. Gentleman is talking about is courtesy and respect. Those habits that are learned in school will serve pupils well all their lives. He denigrates grammar schools, but what we need is grammar school standards in every school, whether it be an academy, a comprehensive school or whatever else. Good standards of behaviour and discipline, aspiration and achievement—who would deny any child that in whatever school they attend?

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Lady has given the game away. Neither she nor her party can distinguish between the form and the substance. The substance of courtesy and respect is of course absolutely necessary; the precise form that it takes is a matter for the judgment of each school.

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The Conservative party is not the only opposition party to have a contradictory approach. I wanted to ask the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) earlier how he reconciles his commitment to the importance of local authorities having a strategic role with the clear call on the Government in the Liberal Democrats’ amendment to

I support that policy, but if the local authority has a strategic role, how can the hon. Gentleman defend only academies having to end selection by aptitude and other means, while sustaining that approach with local authority schools? Would he go further and say that he believes that local authority schools should also end selection by aptitude and other means?

Mr. Laws: Yes. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should end that selective power in specialist and other schools. Does he not understand that we are not only saying that there should be a strategic local authority role, but that the local authority should not have to run every maintained school?

Mr. Chaytor: I understand that perfectly, because that has been the case since the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988. The only people who seem to think that local authorities run every school are the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Certainly nobody on the Government Benches thinks that that is how the system in this country could reasonably be described.

I should like to say a word or two about choice and selection. The ground of this debate, which has been going on for 40 years or more, fundamentally shifted when the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) made his speech earlier this year. Only last week, in the debate on the Loyal Address, I was able to read the key extract of his speech, in which he finally admitted that a selective admissions policy—selection by academic ability—entrenches disadvantage rather than eroding it. From that moment on, regardless of the divisions in the Conservative party, the ground of the debate shifted. I welcome the fact that the Opposition have included in their motion a clear commitment to

albeit in their call for new providers to open them. I also welcome the clear commitment in the Liberal Democrats’ amendment to eliminating selection by various means.

However, we have to be clear about the issue of choice. It is a simple matter: either we want schools to choose pupils through various forms of selection, such as academic selection, which exists in some areas, selection by aptitude or a variety of fairly dubious proxies, or we want parents to be able to choose schools. I am firmly on the latter side of the argument. However, we must accept that the historical legacy of the location of our schools and the distribution of population mean that it is logistically impossible for every parent in the country to secure their first choice school, unless the Government are committed to a massive expansion in their budgets, to keep thousands and thousands of spare places open.

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We heard from the official Opposition yesterday that they are doing precisely the opposite, because they intend to take a huge slice—I think that the figure was £4.5 billion—out of the building schools for the future programme. They have to understand that choice can operate only in a fair, balanced and regulated framework, where the objective is to ensure that parents secure their first choice school, but where that is balanced by other factors. Otherwise, the exercise of choice by some individuals can, if not operating in a fair framework, simply mean the denial of choice to others. It is the central role of the Government and of local authorities to ensure that we have that fair and balanced framework, which maximises choice to the benefit of the greatest number of parents.

I should like to make a point about good schools and good GCSEs. A comment that I have made to a number of Ministers for education is that although the Government have been extremely successful in driving up standards over a 10-year period and in enabling thousands of young people to obtain qualifications that they would not have obtained before—it really is as simple as that—the focus on good GCSEs nevertheless has a downside. The target of five A to C grades has a general level of support, but every time we describe such grades as good GCSEs, we are saying to the young people who do not achieve them that their GCSEs are somehow no good, and that they have failed miserably to achieve what we expect of them. We are sending that message not only to those young people, but to their parents. I have discussed this point with my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, and with his predecessors, but I would like to appeal again for a different way to describe levels of achievement. I am not talking about manipulating targets—targets are important and I want to see results improving year on year, and to see children achieving more year on year—but we have to find a different kind of language.

We have to find a different kind of language to describe schools as well. It is too easy just to talk about a good school. In my experience—I think most Ofsted inspectors would agree with this—there are good schools, but most schools are good at something. To assume that there is a category of schools defined as good and another that is defined as failing is utterly simplistic and does not accurately describe what is taking place. Furthermore, we all too often fall into the trap of defining a school as good because it happens to have a favourable intake. Again, I ask the Government to revisit the kind of language that we use. We need to find a better, richer language to describe the range of schools that we have, their many qualities and the many ways in which they advance the education and achievement of their pupils.

In respect of language, I should also like to make a point about the 14-to-19 diplomas. In the Queen’s Speech debate last week, I made an appeal for us to look again at Sir Mike Tomlinson’s original report on the relationship between A-levels, GCSEs and the new diplomas. I now want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to think again about the use of the words “vocational” and “academic”. In theory, there is cross-party consensus that we need to bridge the academic-vocational divide. In my view, however,
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that will not be achieved as long as we continue to use the terms “vocational” and “academic”. Again, we need a richer, more careful language to describe the range of subjects in the curriculum, and the range of knowledge and skills that young people require to pursue different careers.

For example, we can ask the simple question: is maths an academic subject or a vocational subject? For someone going to university to do a degree in maths, physics or information technology, maths is an academic subject. However, for someone training to be an electrician, a plumber or a joiner, it is vocational. This is an issue for all Members of the House, head teachers, teachers and parents, and we really need to revisit it, to determine the best way of describing the range of subjects, knowledge and skills in the curriculum. I have noticed the word “applied” creeping into recent speeches. Perhaps the terms “theoretical” and “applied” would provide better ways of achieving this.

I want to touch briefly on the subject of special educational needs. Reference has been made by other hon. Members to the Select Committee’s report on SEN, which I believe moved the debate forward a little. I still think that we have a major problem with statementing, however. The noble Baroness Warnock’s speech two years ago calling for a rethink on statementing and on the categorisation of SEN was really important. I am not sure that the Select Committee—of which I was then a member—or the Government’s response have fully taken that report on board.

The basic principle should be that, in reality, the vast majority of children have special educational needs of one kind or another. For many children, those needs will be fairly minor, but they need to be recognised none the less. By focusing on SEN as a distinct category of people with highly visible disabilities, and on the statementing process, we have overlooked the less dramatic, less obvious needs of large numbers of children who nevertheless need a little more attention than the present system can provide.

Finally, I should like to put three questions to my hon. Friend the Minister. First, is it the case that, as the schools commissioner goes round the country looking at local authorities’ plans for building schools for the future, he is requiring the authorities to adopt academies if they are going to secure BSF money? If that is the case, it needs to be made public and a matter of policy. If it is being done quietly, on the side, I do not believe that that is the best way of handling this matter. My own local authority might well be interested in having an academy in the near future, but that is a decision that should be taken locally. It should not involve a bit of arm-twisting by the schools commissioner.

Secondly, will my hon. Friend tell us how far the Department has got with the commitment that was made some weeks ago to review the ballot system for wholly selective schools? As he will know, this is an issue of great importance to me and to many other Members, and the Government need to keep us informed about it, and to consult widely on improvements to the present ballot arrangements. Thirdly, will my hon. Friend confirm the ongoing importance of the historic commitment made by the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, not only to narrow the gap between per-pupil funding in state schools and that in private schools, but to close it? Will my hon. Friend also tell us in what time scale he thinks it would be feasible to achieve that?

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3.25 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), whose knowledge of and commitment to education are widely recognised. To pick up on his question, it would be fascinating to hear from the Minister whether the present Prime Minister’s promise was just spin and whether there is a timetable for fulfilling that commitment. The hon. Member for Bury, North will acknowledge that it would be fantastic if the Minister could do that, but I fear he will not.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. The Conservative motion is extremely positive about the academies programme. It offers the new, young Secretary of State the opportunity to remove some of the kinks in his policy making, and to give the programme his full backing. The word “choice” came out of his mouth as though it were a swear word; he just about managed to utter it, but not with any real enthusiasm. Instead, astonishingly, he spent almost all his speech attacking the Conservatives for proposing such a positive motion in support of what we hope will be an ongoing academies programme, building on the many achievements of the previous Conservative Government.

A Liberal MP, William Forster, drafted the Education Act 1870, and a Conservative politician, Rab Butler, introduced the Education Act 1944, which made secondary education free of charge for all pupils, so let no one doubt that the Conservatives care passionately about the start in life that our younger people, from all backgrounds, experience. That is why we put country before party and voted for the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and why we published yesterday’s green paper a full two years before the expected date of the general election. On matters of such importance, we are always prepared to put country before party and to work with the Government to do the right thing.

I challenge the Minister to face down those on his Back Benches, and in too many Labour-run local authorities, who do not back the academies programme. I think that the hon. Member for Bury, North’s enthusiasm is somewhat muted, although he did not elaborate on that today. I should be happy to take an intervention if he wants to show that enthusiasm, which I hope the whole House would be able to express today.

I shall concentrate on social mobility, which is the reason we need educational reform. The record of successive Governments, as a body of evidence shows, has been poor. A 2005 study by the London School of Economics compared the life chances of British children with those of children in the US, Canada, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. It examined the extent to which childhood circumstances influenced adult economic success. Social mobility was found to be greatest in Norway and Sweden, and Canada and Germany also did well. It was virtually static in the US, and the gap in opportunities between the rich and poor in Britain was found to be widening.

I give the Government credit for doubling in real terms—certainly in cash terms—the amount spent on education, but the social outcomes for which incoming Ministers might have hoped in 1997 have not been delivered. That is why we need reform. That is why we need the positive approach of Conservative Front
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Benchers, who say that we must extend the academies programme to make choice real, while also allowing the establishment of new schools. We must allow charities and other groups to set up new schools; otherwise, the supply system of choice will be taken over entirely by middle-class parents, using their ability to work the system to the benefit of their children, and we will not have the uplift for those from deprived areas that the whole House sincerely wants.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman talks about the disappointing track record on social mobility of successive Governments, but does he agree that academies are not likely to improve it when 7 per cent. of young people educated in private schools bag 40 per cent. of places at the top 20 universities in the UK? That distortion or skew does not happen in the other countries that he cited at the start of his speech.

Mr. Stuart: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which helps my argument immensely. His own figure shows the comparative failure of the state sector, despite record funding, to match the private sector. It shows up the false promise made by the Prime Minister that funding in the state sector would somehow match that of the independent sector. Some of the independent schools that are bagging those university places receive little more money—in some cases, even less—than the average state school, yet they have the successes. Why? It is because of their culture, and because the system itself is important. It is no use Ministers suggesting, as the Prime Minister did earlier, that it is somehow the universities’ fault for failing to select children from schools that are not raising standards sufficiently. The key point is the failure by those schools to raise standards.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes a persuasive case. In view of his last comments, would he support the removal of the charitable status advantage that the private education sector enjoys in an effort to level the playing field?

Mr. Stuart: That is an interesting point— [Interruption.] No, absolutely not. When parents, many of whom are not wealthy, are forced to spend their every penny to escape the failing schools around them, and to pay the tax burden for state schools as well as the additional fees for their children’s education, it is nonsense to propose to remove charitable status from high quality education institutions. What we need to do is bring the choice that exists in the independent sector to the state sector, so that poorer parents are able to use their power as educational consumers to find the best for their children. In places such as Hull, parents are desperate for the opportunity to find better education for their children.

I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister who will reply will redouble their efforts to bring those opportunities to parents and children. For 10 years, the previous Prime Minister was held back by the Secretary of State’s former political master—and perhaps current one, too. We need a fully reforming Government, who can capture the optimism and hope of Conservative Front Benchers and offer opportunity for all rather than guaranteed failure for so many at the bottom of the social pile.

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