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Secondary Education

Volume 115: debated on Thursday 30 April 1987

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7.21 pm

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to speak on the Adjournment on reform in secondary education. We should be debating reform not just because change is a good thing for its own sake, but because there is no doubt that education will be a matter for ever-increasing debate, including debate which may well take place during any coming general election campaign.

It is important that all hon. Members should address themselves to the way in which we can get politics—I mean the wrong kind of adversarial politics—out of our education system. I hope later this evening to give an example of the way in which that might be done.

We must be moving to a way forward in education where we can remove the obvious diversions which appear to exist between political parties and, more often, within the education system itself. After all, the education of our young people is one of the most important matters to which the Government and people of the nation must address themselves.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being prepared to reply to the debate. I hope that she will be able to confirm that, given the present dispute about recent pay talks, the door is open to teachers, administrators and union leaders to discuss the way forward after the interim period through which we are now going. I hope that she will also be able to make a few remarks about the way forward, although I do not propose to devote my speech to the present pay dispute in the teaching profession.

The divisions that exist within education are not helped by the fact that there are at the moment four separate teaching unions. I was a member of the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association. They are all perfectly respectable institutions in the sense that they all have a history of support, and many teachers have loyalty to all four of those unions. I have excluded the head teachers' unions, which can be added to my remarks.

All the unions take a different stance at different times—and that they are perfectly entitled to do—but in the longer term we should be looking for less division and for a way in which teachers can be represented by a less diverse group of bodies. In particular, I support the stance of the Professional Association of Teachers, at least in one respect. It has always said, and I support this without hesitation, that—if I may use an outdated term—to take industrial action is not the best way for the teaching profession to put its case.

I want to go on record as saying that the best advice for the majority of teachers who want to do the best for children and for the education service, whatever their political views, is that the way forward should not include the taking of industrial action — working to rule or taking strike action. That is not the best way forward, and I join the many others who are appealing to the members of the teaching profession to think again. It is fair enough that they should have different views and put their case strongly, even—with respect to my hon. Friend the Minister — to disagree with Ministers, but industrial action is not a good way forward and in my opinion, as an ex-member of the profession. it does not achieve the best results.

If anyone had any doubts that change was needed in education, they might have been removed if they had looked at the survey in The Independent this morning. It highlighted, as far as I could see without any political bias, the deficiencies in the present system, which is mainly comprehensive. The survey was not criticising the comprehensive system as such. As I understood it, the survey said that, because of all the changes in education since 1945, we have not addressed ourselves properly to what it is we are trying to do in the schools. After all, we are not just trying to get the maximum number of pupils to Oxford, Cambridge or the other universities, or the maximum pass level at GCSE or any other exam; we are trying to decide what skills, qualifications, numeracy, literacy, and so on, we want from our pupils when they come out of the schools. The analysis in The Independent, which has been reproduced elsewhere, put that very well and I would recommend not only my hon. Friend the Minister but any other hon. Member to read it.

Let me take a few moments to point to one or two reforms in the secondary education system that I would welcome. I hope that there will be at least a debate, and perhaps action. In any school in any education system there is nothing more important than the quality of the head teacher and the way in which he leads his team of teachers, ancillary staff and pupils.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has obviously been addressing himself to that problem, but I want to encourage the idea of a staff college to provide specialist training for head teachers and potential head teachers. After all, that system works extremely well in the services. I am not suggesting that such a staff college in education should somehow mimic the staff college at Camberley, but there is a strong case for rigorous, meaningful training for head teachers in management and all the other skills that they will need in addition to their teaching skills.

I am not devaluing the teaching skills required by head teachers, because it is good teachers who should be promoted to headships, but they need other skills as well which they may not have had the chance to develop during the earlier part of their careers. For that reason, I again urge the Government and my hon. Friend to respond positively to the idea of a staff college and management training.

Let me pass on to another suggestion that relates to my remarks about the profession, its behaviour and the unions. The majority of teachers have high professional standards and are committed to their work. Indeed, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the schools and to the overwhelming majority of teachers in Norwich who are doing sterling work, far beyond the call of any special contract or written agreement, for the sake of their pupils. That is continuing all the time and must be recognised by hon. Members.

Nevertheless, there is still the problem of industrial action and other actions by teachers which do not have a good effect on their professional status. Therefore, I should like to recommend for serious consideration by the Government the setting up of a professional teachers' council. That is quite distinct from the unions. After all, any body of employees has a perfect right to set up a union under the law, and I shall not comment on that now. But, in addition, we could set up a professional teachers' council which would have the task of setting and monitoring professional standards for members of the teaching profession—whether ensuring that political bias is not introduced into schools, or setting standards or a code of conduct for teachers.

There are many roles that such a body could fulfil, in the same way as the British Medical Association and other bodies perform such functions for doctors and members of the fraternity. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will comment on that, and perhaps suggest that the matter may be considered in the future.

I should now like to move on from the teaching profession to the way in which the secondary school system is now run. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) has joined me, as I wish to refer to a topic that has caused considerable unease among my constituents and his. At present, the local education authority administers the way in which children are allocated to various secondary schools. Of course, there is the Government principle of freedom of choice for parents, but we all know how that works out in practice. Many parents write to me, as their Member of Parliament, saying that they have been unable to secure the school of their choice. They then go on to appeal; but even after they have appealed, the system still seems to work against them. The present arrangement is causing a great deal of unhappiness, which we in Parliament should at least consider, and perhaps try to legislate to remove it.

I recommend to my hon. Friend the Minister serious consideration of the question of open entry to our schools. Anyone who knows anything about education — including my constituents—will know that there are all sorts of snags inherent in such a scheme; but I ask my hon. Friend to consider the matter seriously and see whether those snags can be ironed out. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I should particularly like to see politics taken out of education, and that is one of the reforms that will be necessary if we are to achieve our aim. I believe that entry to a school should be determined mainly through discussion between its head teacher and governors, and indeed members of staff and parents.

While some schools may not necessarily be able to expand fast enough to take all the pupils who want to go to them, it would at least be a step in the right direction if we took the matter out of the hands of the present administrative structure and introduced open entry. We may have to couple that with a change in the way in which funding goes into schools. In the short time available, let me hint at what I should like to see happen.

Under the system I should like to see in operation, a capitation allowance would be paid directly to a school for each child who attended that school. If the school were expanding, there would be at least the possibility of its receiving more money, and putting up extra buildings and employing extra staff to cope with the demand. Many people say that the less good schools that are not so popular will go into a vicious spiral of decline and disappear out of existence. But, from my experience of the independent sector, I do not believe that that will happen. If for any reason a school becomes less popular, it may go into a short-term decline. That, however, presents a challenge to the head teacher, the staff and the governors. They will ask, "What are we trying to do? Why are we not attracting the number of pupils that we are able to take?" After suitable discussion, they will take action to arrest the decline, and the inevitable result will be an improvement of standards all round. That argument, therefore, can be rejected.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me, particularly on a point about which I have some feeling and knowledge.

Is my hon. Friend agreeing with the philosophy expounded by the present Government about giving greater autonomy to the governing body of a school for its financial management? As he may know, I was a governor of the Manor school in Cambridge before I moved to Norwich. That school participated in an experiment to give the headmaster and governors greater autonomy in the financial management of the school. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, if that philosophy were followed — I do not hear many encouraging noises from some teaching unions, but I hope that it will be followed — one of the ways in which governing bodies and teaching staff could attract pupils to their schools would be by having greater independence and more say in how their school is run and how disciplines are operated, and thus being given greater management of their own affairs.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; I entirely support what he has said. I trust that he will allow me to give an example that illustrates my point — although the matter is out of our hands at present and, indeed, I cannot make any comment on the actual processes involved.

Bowthorpe school, in my hon. Friend's constituency, is now a highly controversial subject, and I am recommending that politics should be taken out of education, not put back into it. However, I will say that, if the open-entry system that I have recommended were adopted—along with the independence of schools and governors referred to by my hon. Friend—any future problem similar to that faced by the Norfolk education committee and the head teachers of Bowthorpe school would be dealt with in an entirely different way. If the roll of a school in the position in which Bowthorpe school has found itself was declining, it would be up to the head teacher and the governors to decide together how to address the problem of decreasing finance, and how to move forward into the future. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, under such a system, politics would probably be partially—if not totally—taken out of such circumstances.

Let me say in passing how much I welcome the move already made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to devolve more power to head teachers. I do not wish to comment on that in detail, because we have already heard welcome announcements about it.

I referred earlier to pay and possible future negotiations. Let me now make a further point connected with the issue of the independence of head teachers. I should like pay negotiations in the longer run — whatever form they may take in the future — to be mainly concerned with the basic or minimum rates. In the independent sector, head teachers have much more room for manoeuvre on how much they pay individual teachers—possibly because they want to attract more teachers, particularly in shortage subjects such as physics, mathematics, craft design and technology. If we laid down that pay negotiations should address only the minimum levels and gave head teachers more power—as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South and I both wish—that could be applied to pay as well. That is something that we might consider in the longer term. I should be interested to hear the response of my hon. Friend the Minister, and I hope that she will comment on how we are progressing with the serious shortage of physics and mathematics teachers, about which I have often spoken in the House.

It would be foolish, in my implied criticism of the way in which secondary schools are run, to minimise the severity of the problems posed for local education authorities by the dramatic fall in school numbers since 1979. Hard decisions about administrative reorganisation and school closures have had to be taken. Unfortunately, attempts have been made to pass on responsibility for those problems to the Government. An unholy alliance has been formed between the Labour-led local authorities trying to extort further resources from the taxpayer and teachers' unions seeking pay increases beyond the local authorities' income.

The debate on the future of education is not, therefore, just the product of the recent disruption in the schools. The fundamental problems lie in the structure of the system itself. I have not had time to develop all the changes that I should like to see, but I have referred to some of them. The basic objectives of education are poorly defined at the moment, as was pointed out in this morning's article in The Independent. Furthermore, the educational attainments to be sought by pupils are highly obscure. The active and effective participation of parents has been impossible until very recently.

Largely because there is little or no effective freedom of choice for parents or pupils within the state sector, the vested interests in the educational establishment — the civil servants in the Department of Education and Science, the administrators working for the local education authorities, the union leaders and some local authorities have been able—how can I put this courteously, Mr. Deputy Speaker?—to resist positive change. It is for this reason that a whole range of issues, covering the restoration of educational standards, open entry and capitation, the formulation of a national curriculum to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is addressing himself, and about which, if I had had more time, I should have spoken enthusiastically — perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister of State will comment on that point—have been treated as politically taboo.

This is a challenge that the Government and the Conservative party, as we approach the general election, must accept. There must be a fundamentally new strategy for education that draws pupils, parents and teachers into an effective partnership, enlarges the range of choice and provides real freedom in education, while reducing bureaucratic control. That will require clear educational objectives, better administrative arrangements and proper safeguards for the teaching profession. I look forward to my hon. Friend's comments, enthusiastic or otherwise, on what I have said.

Does the hon. Lady seek the leave of the House to speak again?

7.44 pm


With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I respond to the very interesting points that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) about the reform of the education system. I believe, with him, that for too long we have allowed our education system to wander without very much sense of direction. It is important that we have a clearer idea of where we want to go.

I accept with alacrity my hon. Friend's point about the politicisation of some local education authorities. Sadly, one has to look no further than the recently published HMI report on the London borough of Brent to see what happens if a local education authority decides that its priorities are other than the needs of the children for whom it ought to provide a sensible system of education.

The report saddened me, not just because it is apparent that the management of the local education authority has become completely out of touch with the needs of the children, but because I believe profoundly that young people should be served well by the schools that they attend and by their teachers. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and my colleagues and I are very worried that children in Brent are not receiving the education to which they are entitled.

My hon. Friend referred to his concern about the action that some teachers are taking on pay and conditions of service. It is worth putting on record yet again exactly what has happened in the last few years. I was a member of the Burnham committee, and according to the records there were 12 pay negotiations. Of those 12 pay negotiations, only three ended in a negative settlement. In the other negotiations, there were interventions, sometimes ACAS had to be brought in, and at one time there was a pay policy. No clear and straightforward settlement was reached in the very unsatisfactory Burnham committee negotiations. Therefore, its passing has not been regretted by anybody.

Apart from the Burnham committee being put out of its misery, equally unsatisfactory arrangements have been in existence for about six years. The local education authorities were supposed to sit down with the teachers unions and discuss conditions of service, but the working party failed to meet on a number of occasions because one or other of the union leaders did not wish to attend the meeting. That shows how impossible it was for the local education authorities and the unions to get together to determine conditions of service.

To put that matter right the Government decided to introduce legislation that would lead to the setting up of an interim advisory committee to look into pay and conditions of service for teachers. At the same time, the Government granted a pay award to teachers which, in this calendar year, amounts to a 16·4 per cent. increase. Taken together with the negotiated arrangements for the immediately preceding period, over 18 months that will amount to a 25 per cent. increase in the basic rate of pay for teachers. By no stretch of the imagination can that be considered to be other than a most generous pay award.

When people look at what is happening now in the schools and see that the major unions are still involved in action because not all of the package is entirely to their satisfaction, they find it hard to understand why, after such a generous pay award, the teachers are not seeking other means to discuss their differences with the Government.

My hon. Friend would obviously like me to say more about how, ultimately, we hope that the pay and conditions of service of teachers will be determined. My right hon. Friend has said on a number of occasions that the interim advisory committee is indeed an interim body and that he does not wish to have to determine teachers' pay and conditions of service. Later this year, therefore, he hopes to open discussions with the teacher unions, the churches, parents and all those who have an interest in education in an effort to find the best way in which rates of pay and conditions of service can be determined. My hon. Friend's suggestion that there should be a professional council for teachers may then be considered.

Of course, we need to look at other matters too. I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend when he talks about the management of schools. It is of great importance, not only that our schools are clear in their objectives, about what they are in business for, but that they are managed well. The head teachers in our schools have a heavy responsibility. It is not simply a matter of becoming a super teacher. It is also a matter of going into an institution, into a business. One can draw a parallel, as many do, between the management of a school and that of a business, because a considerable degree of management skill is needed for a school to be run effectively. This applies not just to a large comprehensive of 1,500 children or so but to the smallest primary school. The skill of managing how the children are taught and how best to cope with staff is something that many teachers need. It seems to me fair to suggest that an institution or organisation might be set up to provide potential head teachers with the specific management skills needed to run a school.

That leads on logically to the whole question of how schools are governed. When it comes to what Government have already done to ensure that the customers, the parents, are more involved in the schools which their children attend, the 1986 Act, which I am proud to have had a very small part in putting through the House, is the first step in making sure that parents have a firm part in the government and management of schools.

It is not enough, however, just to give parents a role in governing. We must ensure that they have more than a vague idea of their role. They need a clear managment objective when they become governors. It is more than simply going to a few meetings and doing one's duty as a governor in attending and making decisions. There is the whole business of what the school is doing, how its curriculum is managed and whether the funds for which the head teacher is responsible are being well spent. Governors must also consider the ethos of the school and its discipline, because it is the head teacher, on the whole, who is responsible for the ethos of the school. Nevertheless, that can be determined by a strong governing body, and certainly by a strong chairman of governors. So it is not just the training of head teachers but the training of governors that is an important part of the philosophy that we want to develop.

Greater financial delegation to schools has been broached by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who believes that the experiments and pilot schemes currently being run in Cambridgeshire, Solihull and other parts of the country demonstrate clearly that, where schools and, in particular, head teachers, are given the chance to manage the finances, the schools are more likely to be better run and those involved are more likely to feel that the decisions taken actually relate to the institution. In this way one can draw together the responsibility of the governing body, the responsibility of the head teacher and the good management of the school much more easily and reasonably.

Earlier today my attention was drawn to a report about furniture in schools. Hon. Members may wonder why I want to talk about furniture in schools, but it seems to me a good example. The report concludes that where furniture is purchased in bulk by people who do not use it themselves, those who use it feel no great responsibility for it, and that the state of the furniture in schools at present is rather deplorable. The Government have taken that into account in their funding of local education in this next financial year. We have given a substantial increase to local authorities, amounting to almost 19 per cent., to allow them to put right furniture and equipment which may not be up to the best standards. Financial delegation, however, would vastly improve the chances of purchasing furniture that was well made and represented good value for money, and once the furniture was installed, governors and head teachers would be much more interested in how it was cared for.

My hon. Friend also touched at some length on the matter of open enrolment. In other words, he developed a theory that is very close to his heart, that it should not be possible for a local authority to restrict, even under the more recent Act introduced by the Government, the number of children going into any given school. He developed the view that if parents had access to the school of their choice, and if that school could take the number of children who wanted to go there, the authority should fund that school according to the number of children attending it.

I understand that philosophy very well. When I was chairman of a local authority, I had on one occasion, because of a vast over-subscription to one extraordinarily popular single-sex girls' school, a very difficult problem. We had about 100 more people wanting to go to that school than we could possibly accommodate. It seemed to us almost impossible to tell 100 sets of parents that their children could not go to that school. To everyone's horror, I went to the headmistress and asked whether it was possible to take two more forms of entry for that particular year. Could she take 60 more girls? She said that it would be difficult, but not impossible, and we managed to accommodate the vast majority of parents who wished their children to attend that school, by the use of a simple methodology, flexibility. Of course, we had to give extra resources to the school and make sure that there were sufficient classrooms, books, and so on, but by being flexible as an authority we met the parents' wishes. That was exactly the right thing to do, in my view.

I note with interest exactly what has happened to Bowthorpe school. I note also my hon. Friend's views on how one could extend entrolment to schools within authorities. I hope that he will accept with me that such a philosophy, which I would welcome, would have to be worked out with our colleagues in local authorities, because it is not something that we would wish to go into unless we were certain that the schools that were not as popular with parents would not suffer dramatically and overnight, since that would jeopardise the education of children already in schools whose popularity was or might be declining.

It is important to point out to my hon. Friend that his philosophy on the way in which he would fund a school depends very much on how good that school is. Schools are chosen by parents for different reasons, but mainly because they have discovered, by the normal process of talking to other parents at the school gate or by talking to their neighbours, why they have chosen certain schools.

For the most part, schools get a good reputation if the leadership is good. Often a good head teacher will make a school greatly desired by parents. It is not always the case that a good head teacher or a head teacher who has created the impression that his or her school is excellent is actually delivering excellent education. Therefore, while one accepts that there should be financial delegation to heads, that open enrolment should be encouraged, and that head teachers should be trained, there is another facet to the reforms that I hope my hon. Friend will accept, namely, the introduction of a basic national foundation curriculum, on which my right hon. Friend hopes there will be a wide national debate.

While all the ideas about management and about how children can get into schools can be discussed at length and can be put into practice, unless what goes on in the schools is coherent, well thought out and based on the best practice, and unless the fundamentals of what children are learning are understood by the people as being valuable, we shall not make any progress in our plan to reform education.

I hope that with those few words I have managed to reassure my hon. Friend that we are talking much the same language and that the Government are studying closely many of the ideas that he has put forward.