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Education And Science

Volume 204: debated on Tuesday 25 February 1992

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Education, Northumberland


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations he has received about education in Northumberland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Michael Fallon)

We have received a number of representations, and on Tuesday 11 February I met a deputation which included the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith).

Has the Minister accepted the argument which was put strongly to him and to which he listened carefully that day, that it makes no sense for Northumberland to be forced by Government spending restrictions to cut £3·5 million from its education budget when it spends less per pupil than most other authorities? Will the Minister respond urgently to the constructive plea that was put to him for help through which Northumberland could ease those budgetary restrictions this year and, of course, for an eventual change in that system?

I am looking at the specific points that were made by the delegation to me earlier this month. However, Northumberland's education spending allocation has increased by 24 per cent. over the past two years, and I see no need for any of the cuts that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Does not my hon. Friend find it outrageous that Labour-controlled Northumberland county council has refused to accept economies of nearly £1·5 million, as identified by the Conservative and Liberal groups, and has refused to take enough money out of balances to avoid any education cuts, but at the same time it can find thousands of pounds to issue supplements in the Hexham Courant for party political propaganda to promote the leader of the county council, who happens to be a prospective Labour party candidate? Moreover, Labour councillors do not defend their actions; they put the county treasurer up to do it and then give him a £4,000 salary increase.

Yes. Northumberland's Labour council leader appears to be trying to use parents and governors to further his prospective parliamentary career in Hexham by frightening people into thinking that those cuts are necessary. I repeat that there is no need for any school budget in Northumberland to be cut. The council's overall spending can rise by 5·4 per cent. in April before Northumberland risks charge capping.

Is the Minister aware that due to the cuts that he has imposed on Northumberland county council—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that 200 teachers are about to lose their jobs, with the result that class sizes in Northumberland will increase and under this Government the education service will take a dip?

I think that it is now obvious to the whole House that Northumberland is playing politics with its education budget. I repeat that there is no need for any school budget in Northumberland to be cut at a time when its overall expenditure can increase by 5·4 per cent. before it risks charge capping.

Surplus School Places


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what plans he has to intervene where local education authorities fail to take action to reduce surplus school places.

The Government continue to press local education authorities to remove surplus places, since only they can make proposals for reorganisation. Our latest survey of school capacity shows that Wolverhampton has nearly 12,000 surplus places. We estimate that it will cost Wolverhampton more than £2 million a year to keep them empty.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Pressing is not enough. Unfortunately, the Labour-controlled council in Wolverhampton continues to ignore our pressing. Does my hon. Friend agree that that money should be intended for pupils? Will he please come to the rescue of Wolverhampton parents and, if need be, intervene to ensure that Wolverhampton council manages education and does not waste money?

I shall consider that point. Wolverhampton has the fifth highest overheads of any education authority in England. Its administration consumes more than 5 per cent. of its schools budget. Its education bureaucracy appears to cost £100 per pupil, compared with £30 next door in Solihull. At present Wolverhampton appears to employ more non-teaching staff than teachers under its education budget.

Does the Under-Secretary understand that if the Government had not embarked on the wholly cynical and two-faced policy of enticing schools with surplus places to opt out, the children at Stratford school would not now face chaos? Given that the Secretary of State's own appointed governor, the former chief inspector, Eric Bolton, said that the situation at the school is "unsatisfactory" and that the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers said that pupils and staff at Stratford school are "disturbed", does the Minister recognise that the Secretary of State's statement last week that Stratford school was "operating satisfactorily" had no basis in fact and could come only from a Secretary of State who sought to evade, rather than take, the responsibility which was plainly his?

Let me give the hon. Gentleman some facts. Of the 143 grant-maintained schools to which he referred and which have been approved so far, only 23 were named in reorganisation or closure proposals. As for the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the grant-maintained school policy might be paralysing the production of reorganisation proposals, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that in the past 12 months 150 proposals for school reorganisations were received and some 93 have so far been approved. No such proposals have been made by Wolverhampton.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the state of affairs to which he referred in Wolverhampton has continued for about 10 years now? Has not the Labour-controlled local authority frequently made proposals for reorganisations, knowing that they would be rejected because they were highly partisan? Would it not be a good thing if the Government explained to the people of Wolverhampton, perhaps even by taking an advertisement in the Express and Star, that the gross overspending has continued year after year because Wolverhampton council has seen education in terms of employing people in schools, not in terms of providing good education?

I can tell my hon. Friend that 17 of Wolverhampton's 18 secondary schools have surplus places. It is high time that Wolverhampton got round to proposing some reorganisations. As for Wolverhampton's budget, there was a serious overrun last year of some £2 million, including on the operation of something called the Jennie Lee centre. The working party's report said that the overrun on that centre

"generally reflected policy instructions that no additional cost should be involved but in specifics turned out not to be manageable".

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. All the interventions from the Conservative Front Bench will not save the seat of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks).

Yes, I definitely want to do that. First, I want to draw the attention of the House—[Interruption.] I want to ask the Minister—

I want to ask the Minister why his two Back-Bench colleagues from Wolverhampton did not nominate the schools which they would wish to see closed or from which they would like to have surplus places taken away. In addition, I accept that the Minister is new to his Front-Bench position. Wolverhampton has already submitted two proposals for surplus places and they have been rejected by the Government.

It is clear to the House from that sort of defence that Wolverhampton, even by the standards of Labour councils, is a pretty dreadful education authority, with the fifth highest overheads in England. Parents in Wolverhampton will want to know why the paperwork cost is £100 per pupil there, compared with only £30 per pupil down the road in Solihull.

If the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Hicks) wants to raise the matter, she could raise it on the Adjournment.



To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how much his Department plans to spend on science in 1992–93.

In 1992–93 the science budget will total £1,050 million.

I direct the right hon. and learned Gentleman's attention to the Government's overall spending on research and development. Will he address himself to the fact that no less than 44 per cent. of all Government-funded research and development has a military purpose and next year that figure is due to rise to 48 per cent? How can that be right?

Obviously, military research is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but I am sure that he would argue, as I would, that there is considerable civilian spin-off from all the advances made in the development of military equipment, and that includes the consequences for the electronics industry and others. I have just described the level of the science budget in my Department, which is spent for civil research purposes on environmental, medical, scientific, engineering, economic and social research. That amount has just passed £1 billion per annum for the first time, representing a real terms increase of 2·5 per cent. this year, and we have given the research councils a rising profile for expenditure in future years. We are also expanding our efforts in civil science. The defence expenditure to which the hon. Gentleman referred has considerable benefits for the scientific world and for British industry.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, no matter how large the science budget of his Department may be, it will be a great waste of money in the future if there are no young people interested in science? Does he agree that when Kent County Engineering Society recently held a seminar for primary school heads and local businesses, it turned out that not a single local business had thought of trying to interest primary school children in science and engineering. Surely, it is at that age that interest has to be aroused because later those subjects will fall on the other side of the divide.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We have to interest more young people in scientific and engineering education and training. The development of the national curriculum will do a great deal to stimulate more interest in science because more pupils will have to sustain well-judged scientific programmes of study until at least the age of 16. Although we have now developed good links between business and secondary schools where companies try to interest pupils, we do not yet have enough tie-ups between primary schools and local businesses. I agree that more businesses should contemplate approaching younger children and at an early stage arousing their interest in what science or engineering may hold for them.

Will the Secretary of State keep in this country what James Watson, the discoverer of the DNA basis of the genetic code, has described as the jewel in the crown of British science? Will he authorise the Medical Research Council to plan on the basis that the funding needed by Dr. John Sulston of the laboratory of molecular biology of Cambridge will be available to keep in this country work on the nematode project, as that work is the foundation of the human genome project which is the foundation of the future of medical research and biotechnology? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the United States has made a bid for that work? If funding is not available, and it cannot be found within the present budget, the Secretary of State will be guilty of the loss of that work?

With the greatest respect, it would be a pathetic science policy that suggested that the Secretary of State of the day should intervene to give funds to named scientists—whose names, no doubt, the hon. Gentleman picked up from cuttings in the learned journals. Science nowadays is an international community and British science is pre-eminent in the world. We are one of the leading science nations and we attract many more talented people to this country than we lose. It is no good citing one or two cases. The Medical Research Council will no doubt consider particular claims on scientific merits to counter the fact that Britain has achieved great success in science because of the increasing sums that the Government have made available for that purpose.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the best universities in the United Kingdom for scientific research is Southampton university? It is second to none and it is grateful that the figures that have been released today show that it will receive 10·2 per cent. of its budget for research. I am sure that that money will be used with the utmost effect to promote more and more scientific developments at Southampton university.

My hon. Friend is right to remind us that the Universities Funding Council has considerable funds which it receives from the Government and distributes partially for research-based purposes. This year, the funds have been allocated very much according to the UFC's grading of the quality of research carried out at each university. I congratulate Southampton university on its success in obtaining funds way ahead of the rate of inflation in order to sustain and increase the work that it carries out.

Further Education Programmes


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what plans he has to improve access, facilities and learning programmes in the further education service for people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Alan Howarth)

The Further and Higher Education Bill currently before Parliament will ensure that a wide range of educational provision for students with disabilities and learning difficulties is maintained and developed in the new further education sector.

Does the Minister agree that life-long education is a right, not a privilege, and that it should not be any less of a right just because a person happens to be disabled? Is the Minister aware that many disabled people are concerned that their rights will be reduced if further education colleges are taken out of local authority control? Does the Minister agree with the almost unanimous view of the disability lobby that the best way to protect the rights of disabled people would be to introduce anti-discrimination legislation now?

I can offer the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks. The Bill places clear duties on the further education funding councils to cater for people with learning difficulties and those councils will be required to allocate resources to discharge those duties. It is for the councils to determine how they distribute funding, but the Bill gives the councils wide powers to be used in support of students with special education needs. The Government will ensure that no less than the existing level of resources will continue to be available in the new further education structure and that funding will be apportioned between local education authorities and the funding councils in line with their responsibilities for securing the provision of further education.

Binary Divide


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the consequences for research funding of ending the binary divide.

The new framework for higher education will require funding for basic and strategic research in each subject to be allocated selectively to high-quality departments. All institutions will be free to compete for selective research funding.

I am grateful to the Minister, but is there not a danger that there could be an unfair distribution of funding research between the new universities, which will be formed from polytechnics, and the traditional universities? Is there not concern that there could be inequity in the distribution of research funding to Welsh and English institutions? What will the Minister do to ensure that Wales gets a fair deal in research?

The Government's policy remains as set out in the White Paper on higher education. Funding will be based on an assessment of individual departments. Some departments in an institution will do well, while others will do less well, according to the assessment of their research quality. But institutions right across the new unified higher education sector will be free to compete on fair terms, and the same will apply in Wales.

Does my hon. Friend accept that universities with a strong research base need fear nothing from the end of the binary divide? Does he further accept that the Universities Funding Council has acknowledged the excellence of research at Lancaster university by giving it a 10·9 per cent. increase in funding for the coming year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. The Universities Funding Council is carrying out the policy, in response to the White Paper, of distributing funding according to assessments of research quality department by department. I share my hon. Friend's pleasure and offer my congratulations to Lancaster university on achieving a 10·9 per cent. increase in research funding for the forthcoming year.

Does the Minister appreciate that, with the phasing out of the student-related element of university research funding, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is actively canvassing the introduction of top-up fees? I understand that Birmingham university council is due to consider the matter tomorrow. Will the Government take action to stop the charging of top-up fees, or will they allow universities to go down the road of pay-as-you-learn?

I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would respect the principle of academic autonomy. He cannot have it both ways. He cannot profess, as he likes to do, his respect for the autonomy of academic institutions and at the same time seek to limit their management discretion. I emphasise that we believe, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has said, that top-up fees should be unnecessary because we have planned, and continue to plan, to provide sufficient public funding to support the expansion of high-quality teaching in our universities. Moreover, we regard such fees as undesirable because we are keen that there should be no avoidable barriers to access on the part of people who have not traditionally had the opportunity to go into higher education.

Technical Education


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what progress is being made in the promotion of technical education.


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the building and equipment needs for technical education.

The Government are promoting technical and vocational education through a wide range of measures. They include the introduction of technology as a subject for all pupils from the age of five to 16 and of an improved range of vocational qualifications; the establishment of city technology colleges and of a network of technology schools; and new freedom and flexibility for our further education colleges.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the £25 million technology schools initiative to further technical education in schools. Does he agree that such initiatives help to give young people a better start and help to provide the type of recruits needed by industry? Does he further agree that Labour Members' knee-jerk opposition to city technology colleges shows their obsession with standardisation rather than with improving the quality of education in schools?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the widespread support for the technology schools initiative, with 89 local education authorities having submitted bids. In addition, in a number of LEA areas where it had been decided, mainly for doctrinaire reasons, not to submit bids, we have received individual bids from schools.

Further to my hon. Friend's final remarks, it should come as no surprise to him or to anybody else that Labour Members are opposed to choice. They are committed to abolishing city technology schools, grammar schools and the assisted places scheme, and they have no time for parental choice.

Does my hon. Friend share with me some anger that 19 Labour authorities still have not even bothered to bid for the funds that are available? Does he agree that that contrasts with the breath of fresh air that is now flowing through our universities and polytechnics? The universities have attracted large sums—more than £700 million of additional funding—for the current year, and our polytechnics likewise, now that they are independent of the stifling hand of Labour authorities— [Interruption.]

Will the Minister pledge total support for the Nottingham city technology college for doing just what our young people and the nation need?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I visited the Djanogly college and was impressed with the quality of education offered to so many young people. It was interesting to note that so many heads of secondary schools, in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, are coming to see what has been achieved at Djanogly college and to learn the lessons from it. With regard to bids to become technology schools, my hon. Friend will be heartened by the quality of the bids that we have received from individual schools, including some exceptionally good schools in Labour-controlled areas.

Does the Minister accept that, as there are now 50 different definitions of a professional engineer, it is unrealistic for the Minister's Department to tell Newcastle council, which put in two bids for technology schools, that it should have submitted only one. Does the Minister agree that, to tackle such antique snobbery, two bids from one city should be allowed?

I shall look into the matter because I recognise that Newcastle is a Labour authority that has put aside its doctrinaire opposition to technology schools. So far as I am aware, Newcastle local education authority is as free to submit two bids to the Department as any other local education authority. I assure the hon. Gentleman that those bids, when received, will be evaluated in comparison with other bids. If he is genuinely concerned that Newcastle has been prevented from putting in more than one bid, I shall look into the matter for him.

Does the Minister not think it unfair to spend £7 million on a city technology college in Bradford, when that amount equals the sum spent on the nearly 300 publicly owned schools in Bradford? As the Minister should know, those schools are very much in need of large-scale capital expenditure. Many of them are of a Victorian standard and need considerable investment. Does he agree that the schools in Bradford provide a perfectly good technical education and that they need to be built on and improved, rather than being attacked by diverting public funds into city technology colleges?

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman has visited the city technology college in Bradford. Indeed, he has refused invitations to do so. That college provides an excellent education to many pupils in Bradford. Parents are extremely keen to have their children admitted to the college because they want them to take advantage of the excellent education that it offers. The hon. Gentleman should take more time to encourage schools in Bradford to learn the lessons from the city technology college to improve the quality of technology education in Bradford. He should also have words with his colleague, Councillor John Ryan, who needs to improve the quality of his submissions to my Department for funding from central Government.

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of the finest technical education in Europe is given to the 7,000 students of the Derbyshire college of higher education? Its bid to become a polytechnic has been supported for many years by Conservative Members from Derbyshire. Is my hon. Friend aware that, as polytechnics are to disappear, we now support its bid to become a university? Will he ensure that everything possible is done so that Derbyshire can have its first opportunity to have a university, in contrast with Nottingham which will have two, Leicester which will have three, and Loughborough which will have one? At present, Derbyshire has none.

I am aware of the strong support from my hon. Friend and other Derbyshire Members for that development. The position has been clearly explained to the college in Derby and I am sure that it will pursue the opportunities.

Primary Education


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what proposals he has arising out of the report on primary education by Alexander, Rose and Woodhead.

I commissioned the report to stimulate debate within the teaching profession and in primary schools about how best to deliver the national curriculum and to raise standards. The effective introduction of the national curriculum will require changes in practice in many schools and the report will assist the teachers concerned in planning the necessary changes.

I welcome the right and learned Gentleman to the Dispatch Box—I did not think that he was going to answer this question as he looked a bit tired sitting on the Bench there. I am glad that he did answer it, as I wanted to ask him this: has he learnt any lessons from the report, particularly those related to ability streaming? He is known to have favoured that, but it is rejected by the report as a

"a crude device which cannot do justice to the different abilities a pupil may show in different subjects and contexts".

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has read the report. If he were to read it with a less selective eye, he would benefit considerably. He would discover that the report advocates the grouping of pupils according to ability in many circumstances, in order to place the pupil in a specific ability group for a particular purpose as that is a more flexible device for teaching older children in a number of subjects. I hope that he and other members of the Labour party will eventually be talked out of their past commitment to mixed ability teaching at all levels, for, as the three wise men have confirmed, that is not suitable for delivering the broad and balanced curriculum at which the Government are aiming.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that Conservative Members welcome the report of the three wise men? Does he further agree that the report condemns the trendy, discredited methods put forward by Labour and calls for a return to traditional teaching? What plans does my right hon. and learned Friend have to implement the report, and what is the time scale likely to be?

My hon. Friend is right. The report stated that the progress of primary pupils had been hampered by the influence of highly questionable dogmas, which had led to excessively complex classroom practices and devalued the place of subjects in the curriculum.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Labour party has been closely associated with the development of those dogmas over many years. We are circulating the report to all primary schools so that primary school teachers can benefit from its advice. The National Curriculum Council will take account of the report in monitoring and reviewing the manageability of the national curriculum. The Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education is to advise me on the implications of the report for primary initial teacher training in future. I intend to use the report to review the present arrangements for the induction of newly qualified teachers and in-service training. Considerable changes are required in classroom practice in many of our primary schools if we are to raise standards to the levels demanded by today's society and parents. The Government are determined to raise those standards, and the report will be a valuable instrument to enable us to do so.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is now evidence that standards in the basics, which the report identified as the key skills on which other learning depends, have fallen? Does he further accept that the report identifies that there has been serious disturbance in primary schools in recent years? Will he abandon his ideological dictation from the centre and work with teachers to bring in the changes in the curriculum for which the report calls?

First, I personally do not accept that there is any evidence such as the hon. Lady describes. I find it odd that the position has so changed compared with 15 months ago when I became Secretary of State, when some Conservative Members were alleging that standards had declined and Opposition Members were denying those allegations. The recent report of the National Foundation for Educational Research did not attribute any decline to the national curriculum; the interpretation placed on it by the hon. Lady and her hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) is based on a deliberate misreading of the report.

Will the Secretary of State explain how he was able to commission a review of teaching methods in a matter of a few weeks, although his minimum standards—first laid down in 1981—were not met in the 10 years that the Government allowed themselves, and the current review will not now report until the autumn? Is it fair to assume that, in this general election year, the right hon. and learned Gentleman expects the review to lead to a cut in the Government's minimum standards for education facilities, designed to meet the requirements of the national curriculum?

Most of the minimum standards have been met. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the review will go ahead in the autumn.

The reason why the "three wise men" report was produced so quickly is that the three people whom I invited to deliver it—Mr. Alexander, Mr. Rose and Mr. Woodhead—had behind them a lifetime of experience and close involvement with primary schools, and they were able to distil that lifetime's knowledge very rapidly. As far as I am aware, no one has criticised my choice of those three experts, or challenged their conclusions. It is slightly absurd for people to pretend that the "three wise men" report is anything other than a valuable contribution to the raising of standards in our schools.

City Technology Colleges


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many pupils attend city technology colleges.

Currently, we estimate that there are some 8,000 pupils benefiting from a CTC education.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that city technology colleges provide a real alternative education for children in the inner city? Is he aware that in south-east London—and serving my Dulwich constituency—is Haberdashers' Aske's city technology college, which has received more than 800 applications for 180 places? Is that not proof positive that CTCs are popular both with parents and with pupils?

I agree. The popularity of all the CTCs is beyond challenge. Despite deep and unremitting opposition from, in particular, the Labour-controlled councils of Lewisham and Southwark, Haberdashers' Aske's CTC has succeeded in attracting an overwhelming amount of interest from parents. My only regret is that the college is not able to take more of my hon. Friend's constituents.

Surely the Minister—and all the other Ministers and other Tory Members—know that the CTCs are really private schools, siphoning off millions of pounds of public money. Is it not true—as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) pointed out—that as much public money goes to one CTC, to which parents who have not gone through the normal process will have access, as to all the other schools in the area, and that it goes there at the same rate? The other schools have to share little or nothing while the city technology college gets the lot—and it is public money.

I imagine that this may well be the hon. Gentleman's last contribution to Education Question Time. I note that his question was as full of ideological claptrap as all the others that he has asked during his career in the House.

Further Education


To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what progress is being made with plans to give further education and sixth-form colleges more independence.

Excellent progress is being made with our plans, which are the subject of the Further and Higher Education Bill currently before Parliament, to give colleges independence from local authority control.

Following the visit of our hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) to Basildon last Friday, will my right hon. and learned Friend endorse our hon. Friend's statement that the independence that we are offering colleges of further education and sixth-form colleges such as Basildon's will enable them to be more effective, efficient and flexible than they can be at present? Will my right hon. and learned Friend agree to visit Basildon this year to observe the excellent education standards enjoyed by my constituents?

My hon. Friend the Minister of State was very impressed by his visit to Basildon, and I should certainly be interested in visiting it myself if and when my diary allowed it.

I have visited sixth-form colleges in Thurrock and Boston this year, and I recently addressed the annual meeting of the Association of Colleges for Further and Higher Education. I agree that the colleges are looking forward to their independence and to expanding the opportunities for further education available to our young people. I find that they bitterly regret the Labour party's dogmatic commitment to repeal, contrary to the wishes of the college principals, the Bill going through the House precisely because the Opposition Front Bench are acting at the behest of a few backwoodsmen Labour county councillors throughout the country.

The Secretary of State will be aware that further education colleges charge their students for certain activities related to the curriculum—not tuition fees, but other activities. When the Bill goes through, if it does, sixth-form colleges will have the same freedom. Will the Secretary of State now give a guarantee that no sixth-form college student will be charged for activities in relation to the school curriculum, or is this to be yet another example of pay-as-you-learn under the Conservative Government?

I know of no realistic reason for expecting any sixth-form college to introduce charges of the kind described. Sixth-form colleges will be funded on the basis that they carry on with their present practice. I have not met a college principal who intends to change that practice. The hon. Gentleman is merely trying to raise obscure scares about our proposals when he knows from his own visit to the association that the policy is extremely popular with all the principals and that his statement—that the colleges would be given back to his friends in Labour councils—was greeted with widespread dismay there.