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Schools (Parental Choice)

Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 14 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what new plans she has to strengthen the rights of parents to choose the school their children will attend.

I hope very soon to be able to introduce a Bill which will include provisions relating to the expression of parental wishes in the admission of children to schools and the duty of local education authorities to take them into account.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply, but will she bear in mind the fact that parental choice is a precious right of most parents at the moment? It is enshrined in the Education Act 1944. Will she bear in mind the fact that anything she produces must be seen to be manifestly better?

I have not the slightest doubt that what we are proposing will be a manifest improvement on the 1944 Act in at least two ways. First, it will for the first time require local authorities to provide detailed information about schools in the maintained system, which has never been the case before. Secondly, it will provide for a local system of appeals, which is also not required at present. In my view, both will be a substantial improvement on the present arrangements.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Conservative Opposition have for many years talked a lot of rubbish about parental choice? Is she aware, for example, that my father would dearly have loved me to go to Eton, Harrow, Haileybury College, Winchester or some other great public school but that he was unable to arrange for me to do so for one simple reason—that he did not have any money to send me there? is it not true, even in relation to local authorities, that 90 per cent. of ordinary working people under Conservative local authorities have never had parental choice in the past and that for the first time we are presenting them with that?

On the first part of my hon. Friend s question, I do not believe that he would have been either more articulate or more eloquent if he had gone to Eton, Winchester or any other public school. On the second part, I assure the House that it is our intention that all parents' wishes shall be taken into account, and not only those of the tiny minority whose children went to grammar schools in the past.

Will the Secretary of State stop advising education authorities to close schools in rural areas, since this deprives parents of choice and is also a shattering blow to community life in villages?

The hon. Member perhaps does not fully appreciate that the law says quite clearly that the initiative for a closure shall be taken by the local authority. It is not in my power to initiate any school closures. The suggestion must come from the local education authority. As the Conservative Party controls almost all rural education authorities, the matter seems to lie very much in its hands.

Is it not a fact that the Labour Government have been steadily working for a considerable time for the maximum parental choice for all parents and that a Bill is shortly to be published which will expand parental choice? Is it not also a fact that the Conservative Party has been using the terms "parental choice" and "parents' charter" as demagogic slogans? Is it not true that for countless years the Conservatives have had the chance to democratise education but that they have sent over 80 per cent. of ordinary children to the secondary modern schools and want parental choice for themselves and their children?

For whatever reason, this is the first Government to propose that there should be information, by law, that there should be parent representation on governing boards, by law, that there should be local appeals, by law, and that parents should be able to express their wishes in all situations, by law. Thus, people should look at the fruits and not at the promises.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, although we welcome the publishing of information and the local appeals system—indeed, we on this side pressed for it for years—we are concerned that the new education Bill will contain clauses which will allow local authorities rigidly to control the intake each September—the number going to each school—which means rigid zoning, which in turn means the end of parental choice, whatever appeals system she may set up?

The hon. Gentleman will know that if he has been pressing for it for years it is strange that it has not happened. Second—yes, we have to look at the planning of the future of our education system, but we intend to do that without sweeping away either section 13 or section 68, both of which enshrine the right of local consultation and local objections under the 1944 Act. We are not proposing to repeal either of those provisions.