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The RNIB is not alone in expressing concern that the Government's increasingly centralised and autocratic approach will lead to insufficient scrutiny and insufficient democratic control. The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers has commented:
There are also questions of principle relating to, for example, the establishment of private companies. The power for schools to set up private companies may be welcome, although it is potentially much more far-reaching than The Times Educational Supplement's suggestion that village schools might run post offices. Ministers must answer serious questions about whether liabilities will lie with the governors, with the school's forum, or with the LEAwhich could be in the odd position of picking up legal responsibility even when it had no involvement in running a school or a company. Or would liability lie where all decision-making power will liewith the Secretary of State?
Earned autonomy is a fine concept, but the Bill gives little hope to most good schools that they will be able to enjoy the freedom and autonomy that they think they have earned. As the Secondary Heads Association stated:
Six months ago, the Government spoke about the key role of LEAs; now they are legislating to strip LEAs of their funds, removing their powers on school forums, and shifting their functions to private companies. For four years, the Government have failed to inject private sector ideas into failing schools; now they are shifting their attention to successful schools instead. The Bill is not about standards; it is about structures. It contains 211 clauses and 22 schedules, nearly all of which are about structures and not about standards.
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I agree with the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that we have had a good debate. We covered a lot of important ground, but the ambition encapsulated in the Bill is for a modern and effective comprehensive system that commands the confidence of every community in the country.
Today's Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report shows how much progress we have made, but it is no secret that a great deal remains to be done, in particular at secondary school level. Data for 1998 show Britain with a lower proportion of 17-year-olds in education than any OECD country except Turkey, Mexico and Greece, so we must do a great deal better. We have our sights set on this target: by 2010, 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds should have had the chance to participate in higher education.
It is not too difficult to understand some of what went wrong. In 1960, Britain spent a higher proportion of gross domestic product on education than did most other countries. By 1988, an OECD 24-country study showed that our education spending was less as a proportion of GDP than that of any other country. The share of GDP spent on education fell from 6.5 per cent. in the mid- 1970s to 4.7 per cent. when we were elected. Howard Glennerster has commented on the significance of the fact that
Mr. Timms: The figure was 4.7 per cent. when we were elected; it is now 5 per cent. and rising. Education spending has risen faster in the UK than in any other major European country, and it will be 5.3 per cent. at the end of the current spending review. We are committing unprecedentedly large additional sums to education this year, next year and the year after. Schools and heads can see the difference.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell- Grainger), who is not in his place, made points about the need for additional investment in the fabric of rural schools, but there has been an enormous increase. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) made that point. Of course there is a long backlog after the years of neglect, but we are making great progress and investment in schools has more than trebled since 1997. It will rise further in the next couple of years.
The Bill is important in setting out how we shall achieve the step-change improvement in secondary education, given the increased investment now available and building on the huge improvements in primary education that teachers have achieved over the past four years. My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) tellingly made the point about the importance and dramatic character of those changes, which are inspiring. That is true in particular of the changes in the most disadvantaged parts of the country, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred.
Mr. Timms: No. I must underline the importance of the changes achieved through the committed work of primary school teachers over the past four years and the literacy and numeracy strategies. The test scores for children leaving primary schools have dramatically improved, but I rebut the suggestion of a conflict between good test scores and good quality education.
Since June, I have consistently heard from secondary school teachers that what is important is that youngsters arriving in secondary schools from primaries not only have better test scores, but can read and write better, are more articulate, more confident and much better equipped to gain the full benefit of a secondary education. That is a remarkable achievement by the teaching profession, and one of immense significance for Britain's future. It proves that we can change things for the better in our schools. We have done so most effectively in the most disadvantaged areas; now we need to build on that at secondary level, and the Bill will enable us to do so. It focuses particularly on the value of a diverse secondary-school system, and on creating a system characterised by partnership and innovation.