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Education: Excellence in Cities

5 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The Statement is as follows:

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    offer support. This will benefit those who have been traditionally failed by the system, especially children from minority ethnic and disadvantaged backgrounds.

    "This year, we will make a start with £17 million to employ over 800 mentors in our schools. Mentors will guide pupils towards extra help and extra tuition where they are falling behind. Nor can we allow a disruptive pupil to wreck the chances of others. Excluded youngsters miss out on education and often turn to crime. Seventy-five per cent. of those on remand have a reading age of 10 or below. We are already acting to tackle these problems.

    "Today, I propose that in these areas every secondary school should have access to a learning unit for disruptive youngsters. They will receive a full time-table and will return to class only when they can do so without disruption.

    "Madam Speaker, turnover and the use of supply teachers are major challenges to the continuity of education in inner cities. We will introduce new measures to attract and retain good teachers, through enhanced retention bonuses and targeted training and development.

    "Alongside today's measures, we are strengthening diversity and excellence across the education system. Today, I can announce the expansion of our existing target for specialist schools from 500 to at least 800 by 2002. This will mean that nearly one in four secondary schools in England will offer a specialism, linked to neighbouring schools and colleges.

    "Our new network of learning centres will include specialist schools with a strong ICT focus and adult computer learning. The first 80 centres will be placed in our inner city areas at a cost of £100 million. I can also announce a five-fold increase in our beacon school programme from the current planned number of 200 by September to 1,000 by 2002.

    "There has been great enthusiasm for education action zones--and we will invest up to £24 million to extend the programme to support an additional 40 smaller zones. We will also accelerate Ofsted inspections of inner city local education authorities.

    "I am pleased to say that, to spearhead this drive, the Prime Minister has today appointed my honourable friend, the School Standards Minister, to hold special responsibility for inner city education. She will lead a strategy group which will include successful heads.

    "For too long the specific educational characteristics of inner cities have been ignored. Today, I believe we have set in train action which will lead to a step change in aspiration and expectation. Our ambition is real diversity and excellence--from world-class primary education to a comprehensive system which works for all our children whatever their background.

    "Madam Speaker, I commend this Statement to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. The Government having attacked selection on the ground of ability for months if not years, this Statement is seriously astonishing. It would be helpful to have some questions answered on finance, but I shall return to those in a moment.

No one, but no one on this or, I suspect, any side of the House would argue with the aim that education should meet the needs of all children from the very brightest through to those with the most special needs. That is common ground between us. Indeed, our specialist schools were designed by the previous government to expand the strengths of many of our schools; and I am delighted to see that the expansion will continue.

The Statement reveals the hopeless confusion at the heart of the Government's education policies. They have spent two years attacking any attempts by schools to specialise with more able pupils. Schools are losing their power over their admissions policy. They will no longer be able to introduce a policy of selecting any students on the basis of ability. Furthermore, all our grammar schools are under threat; and it is my prediction that with the rigged balloting system few will survive the next decade.

Now the Government have come up with this scheme for selecting more able pupils in inner city comprehensives. Why is that form of selection by ability being imposed while all existing forms of selection have been banned? The Government have taken all the rungs out of the ladders and now have a dog's breakfast of a system in which they are trying to put one or two of them back.

This hare-brained scheme will be virtually impossible to operate in practice. Are the Government listening to the teachers and the heads of department and the people who have already been reading, in some detail, over the weekend about those proposals? I listened to Radio 4 this morning when the matter was gone into in great detail. That is another example of how the Government prefer to go public with their Statements before respecting the sovereignty of Parliament.

Are we suggesting that more able pupils should be taken by bus to other schools for special lessons? What was wrong with able children attending schools which could provide for their needs? Will the noble Baroness confirm that the Government ban specialist schools from selecting by ability? Under the Government's present plans, schools can specialise in music but they cannot specialise in mathematics because that smacks of selecting by ability. Are the Government now saying that pupils can be taken to another school because of their ability at maths but cannot be enrolled at that school? Is that not tying the policy up in knots?

The Secretary of State has made clear on so many occasions his hostility to selection on the basis of ability. Those special classes are to take place in pupils' own schools. Is that with or without the very teachers who are failing to meet the needs of the children in those schools or are the teachers in those schools to be set aside? Very often, inner city children have enormous problems at home. The end of the school day is not a time when they are at their brightest. But they must sit down with their

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new teachers who will start to teach them literacy, numeracy and other subjects. Those children, tired and exhausted, have been holed up in schools during the week and they will then be taught after school and on Saturday mornings.

Why can those special lessons not take place at normal times during the school day? Do we not owe it to our children to meet their needs during the course of a normal school day? Are we back to setting in schools? I thought the Government were against that. On this side of the House, we certainly support the notion of setting.

This hardly constitutes the transformation of inner city education. The Secretary of State famously remarked--and it is well recorded--that:

    "I am having no truck with middle-class, left-wing parents who preach one thing and send their children to another school outside the area".
Of whom was he thinking? Is it all right now, provided that the children travel by bus to a specialist school, in an evening, from inner city schools where the children are enrolled already?

Mentoring can be a useful way of helping pupils. When I was at the Home Office, we did a great deal to encourage mentoring, especially of children in inner city schools. We worked closely with the Prince's Trust. So many of our young civil servants encouraged people in business and commerce to lend their most able people to work alongside young people, particularly those who were disruptive in school, to see whether they could be brought back on track. So we do recognise that work.

But the Secretary of State makes great play of that and of the money that is to go to inner city schools. Will the noble Baroness confirm that that is part of the education settlement which has been announced already? How is the money to reach the schools? Is the Secretary of State aware of the frustration and anger among schools when they hear yet another glitzy announcement from the Government, but they know it is to be financed out of the money which should have gone to them as part of their core funding? Instead, it is held back for yet another central departmental initiative.

Over the weekend, I was talking to the head of a school which is having to shed 10 members of staff. It is a secondary school--it was a grant-maintained school--and is a specialist school. Is it to shed 10 staff and then to look forward to a glitzy, presentational mentor who will arrive at the end of the school day? Would it not be better for that school to keep those members of staff?

It is true that the way in which money is now being top-sliced in education means that the core funding going into school is being corrupted and distorted. The best way forward is to give schools the greatest possible power to shape their own characters and to call them to account. The Government say that they will allow schools to select by aptitude (for example, music) but not ability (for example, maths). That is ludicrous.

Having attacked selection on the ground of ability for so long, how is it that the Government can now present us with the kind of weasel words which we see in this document? What provision will there be for a highly academic, able young person in a school which does not

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meet that child's needs? What will happen? Will that child not be selected on the basis of ability as a child with special needs?

In repeating the Statement, the noble Baroness said:

    "Our ambition is real diversity".
That is perhaps so, as long as that does not involve selecting a child on the basis of ability. Or does it? How do we take that from the Statement?

I should like the noble Baroness to clarify the financial aspect. I have asked for a breakdown of the £19 billion which was allocated to education over three years. I am finding it extremely difficult to get information from the department about that. Is that money additional to the £19 billion or is it part of it? To what extent has the £19 billion been eroded from core provision for schools into those specialist schemes? Will all the revenue costs of those measures continue to be funded beyond the planned period? Many schools across the land are receiving money from the Government for one scheme or another, but then are left to pick up the costs. Even in relation to the class-size pledge, they may have the classrooms and extra teachers this year, but there is nothing in their budget which will provide for the continuing revenue costs of refurbishing those classrooms and providing teachers and staff for the children.

The noble Baroness is, at the moment, making evaluative statements about action zones. That is another area about which I have been asking questions. But we are not receiving any information about how they are performing. I can tell the noble Baroness that in places they are so bogged down with communicating, meetings and co-ordination that the very last people to benefit from those activities are the children in the schools. This Statement is breathtaking in its arrogance and in its double standards.

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