HL Deb 13 November 1996 vol 575 cc962-1005

4.47 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark rose to call attention to the importance of choice and diversity in the education of four to 19 year-olds; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to debate some of the most important aspects of the educational landscape. It would be easy in the light of the current press preoccupations to do nothing today but deplore the state of our schools, the crisis in discipline and the poor performance of teachers with more and more gloom until we had talked ourselves into a state of collective despair. I do not believe that that would be helpful to teachers or to pupils—nor would it address issues about which we in this House are most concerned.

I spent 17 years visiting schools and colleges as a member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate. As chief inspector I read my colleagues' reports of the hundreds of school and college visits that they made each year. Since then, although working in higher education I have been privileged to visit schools and to talk regularly with teachers and heads in their schools, in private and in conferences. I therefore have good evidence when I say that the overwhelming majority of our schools are well ordered industrious institutions with good relationships between teachers and pupils and with good standards being achieved. In our justifiable anger at those examples where teachers are failing either to maintain discipline or to teach the basic skills to an acceptable standard, we should remember that the bad examples are far outnumbered by the good.

We have long known that there were problems with a minority of schools and a minority of teachers. The difficulty is in knowing how to tackle the many different influences which bear on those problems. Issues such as the training of teachers, the content of the curriculum, the structure of examinations, increased autonomy for schools and the training of head teachers have all been tackled by the Government in the past few years. But even more fundamental than those is the relationship between parents and schools and the concerns that we all share about examples where the basic trust between the two seems to have broken down. It is for that reason that the Government's initiatives in the past decade have been designed to ensure that parents and pupils are at the heart of all educational policies.

If schools are to serve the needs of their pupils adequately and to meet the aspirations of parents they must establish a real partnership with parents from the start so that parents feel in every sense a real commitment to the school and to the job that it is doing. This commitment, however, is immeasurably stronger if there has been a conscious choice on the part of parents to send their children to a particular school and if there is adequate information on which the parents can base what is, after all, one of the most important choices they have to make for their children. This is why so much of the Government's recent policy has been directed towards ensuring that parents have a very full range of information about the schools within their neighbourhood. Every school must now publish a yearly prospectus which describes both its achievements and what it has to offer. The prospectus includes examination and key stage test results, comparing them with local and national results. It also lets parents know about the standards of discipline within the schools because it records the rates of unauthorised absence or truanting. For secondary schools, the prospectus will record the jobs or further education which school leavers have pursued.

Parents will also find a description of the school's aims, the values it hopes to give the pupils in its care, the moral and spiritual guidance which it offers and how it deals with children who have special needs arising from exceptional gifts or exceptional learning difficulties. In addition to the very full information via the school prospectus, parents now receive reports from the Office for Standards in Education, which inspects the schools at regular intervals. These Ofsted reports, as we know from the press, are of intense interest to parents and employers.

The Government have made this information available because they recognise that a full knowledge of the ethos and performance of the school is the first step towards enabling parents to make a real and informed choice about the right school for their child. Once they have made that choice, it is vital for the school to engage the parents as true partners in the learning, discipline and moral values of their children. The knowledge and concern which parents naturally have for their child is an enormous resource for the school, and the pilot projects in home-school partnership, involving parents as intelligent supervisors of their children's homework and other activities, are much to be welcomed.

We have come a very long way in recent years towards meeting the goal which the Prime Minister set in 1991 to empower parents within the education system so that they can make better informed choices about what is best for their children. But the parents' right to choose means choosing the school which suits their child and their family. No parent wishes to see a child fitting into some predetermined mould which ignores the very special ability and needs of the individual child. Under the Parents' Charter, parents have a right to expect every school to do its best to make sure that every child does as well as he or she possibly can. This is a very demanding standard, but it is the least that parents have the right to expect. It is demanding also in that it requires a very wide range of schools from which parents can choose and a very wide range of opportunities within those schools. The individual needs of children cannot be met within a uniform comprehensive system.

As pupils get older they increasingly need to make choices for themselves and they need information and guidance in reaching the right choice of a future career or programme study. For this reason, I very much welcome the provisions in the Bill now being considered in another place which are designed to ensure that pupils receive adequate careers education and advice with access to information about career and educational opportunities after they leave school. The importance of such information and advice cannot be over-estimated. All the best efforts in the world in providing a good education and raising achievement are diminished if, at the end of the educational experience, pupils cannot apply the knowledge and skills which they have acquired to their adult working lives.

At the age of 14 and again at 16 young people now have a range of choices which they may make within the school curriculum. They are still guaranteed, of course, access to the breadth and balance of the national curriculum, but in addition they now have options in specialist fields such as languages, the performing arts, humanities and technology. The introduction of the GNVQ (the general national vocational qualification) has further extended the range of choices which are available to this age group. It is now possible for them to combine academic study with a qualification which introduces them to basic understandings in a broad career field.

The move towards parity of esteem between vocational and academic education has been one of the most important developments of the past decade. Young people and their parents are able to make choices about an appropriate and attractive future career, no longer hindered as they were before by issues of status and dreaded academic snobbery. Too often in past years young people were forced into academic choices where they under-performed and were unhappy instead of choosing broad vocational courses where they could have excelled. The policies of the past decade have provided us with a range of diverse institutions representing nothing short of a revolutionary change in the former all-too-uniform landscape of education.

Successive legislation has given increasing levels of independence to schools at the individual institutional level, extending their financial freedom to a freedom to specialise in specific areas of the school curriculum in which they have a special contribution to offer. In the new Education Bill, the Government have proposed that schools may select a larger percentage of their pupils, choosing their own selection criteria. These criteria enable a school to select young people with a special talent, perhaps in the performing arts, languages, technology or humanities, or even in sport. Comprehensive schools selected only on the basis of geography and neighbourhood—this element of selection allows a mix of social backgrounds, sharing talents and aptitudes instead of class. Furthermore, the parent of the secondary school child has a choice between schools still within the LEA system, Church schools, grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges as well as schools in the independent sector. Thanks to the provision of assisted places, whose number is to double to 68,000 following on the Prime Minister's announcement last year, access to the independent sector is no longer limited to those whose parents have the ability to pay. The popularity of this scheme among parents is annually demonstrated by the numbers who apply and the scheme has ensured that the independent schools have a wider mix of social backgrounds among their pupils. It also, of course, provides access to education of a very high standard indeed to those who could not otherwise have exercised such a choice.

This diverse range of schools for 11 to 16 year-olds is matched by the very wide range of choices available for 16 to 19 year-olds. A 16 year-old can now choose the type of further education and training best suited to his individual interests as well as to his individual abilities. If he chooses to remain in the sixth form he may choose A-levels or GNVQs, thus ensuring that the option for a vocational as well as an academic route is kept open. Increasingly, many are choosing to move into one of the dynamic further education colleges to which this Government have also given financial autonomy and entrepreneurial freedom. Because of this, these colleges now provide courses which match the needs of students and employers, unchannelled by any form of LEA planning. The popularity and success of these programmes for 16 to 19 year-olds is dramatically demonstrated by the increase in the number of them who now stay on in education after the age of 16. In the five years from 1981–28 to 1991–23, the proportion of 16 year-olds in full-time education rose from 48 per cent. to 71 per cent. and the Government propose an additional 25 per cent. increase in the numbers in further education and are well on target. Modern apprenticeships and national vocational qualifications have, since their introduction, provided work-based opportunities for a wide section of that age group and have ensured that young people move into a properly gradated and externally monitored system of training when they enter the work place.

The record of the city technology colleges founded by private sector investment has been a very proud one indeed. Located in some of the most deprived inner city areas of the United Kingdom, the CTCs have succeeded in raising the performance and standards of those young people; have provided them with expert teaching in well-ordered and pleasant buildings; and given them a sense of their own dignity which has been heartening to observe. The commitment and faith of those who have founded such CTCs—and my noble friend Lord Harris of Peckham is an outstanding example of a benefactor and proprietor of two such colleges—has brought a new element into public sector education in this country for the first time since the days of the great humanitarians of the 19th century.

The diversity of schools and the diversity of institutions at all levels, which has been made possible by the increasing autonomy which this Government have given them, has produced a healthy competition among the schools and colleges. That competition has provided them with a motivation towards excellence and has developed in schools a will to meet the needs and aspirations of all pupils and parents in a way in which very few other measures have been able to do in the past.

Parents now not only exercise choice but exercise real influence over the nature and content of the school curriculum. Of course there are many matters which are still not right in the education system and much work still needs to be done. Reforms in teacher training were initiated in 1983 and continue today. Reforms of examinations and curricula have gone a long way to raise standards and to increase choice. The introduction of an orderly system of national vocational qualifications led by employers and responsive to their needs has done much to make this country more competitive in the international market.

The autonomy of institutions has enabled them to meet the needs of their clients in a flexible way. The healthy competition in which they now engage has directed their attention towards raising their performance, so ensuring that pupils and students really do have the opportunity to perform as well as they possibly can, just as the Parent's Charter promised.

Better careers guidance and parity of esteem between vocational and academic work has encouraged more young people to choose a vocational rather than an academic route and both they and their future employers have benefited from that choice. Everything in education takes a long time to bear fruit and we cannot expect the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s to bear immediate fruit. But the first signs are there. Massively increased participation in post-compulsory education and a steady increase in pupil achievement are a validation of the Government reforms. The teaching profession and the talented people who run our schools and colleges have responded magnificently to the challenges which those changes have laid upon them. I have every confidence that the exercise of parental and student choice among an increasingly wide diversity of institutions matching the needs of young people and of society is working towards an education system of which we in this country will become ever more proud. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for giving us this opportunity to debate the importance of the concept of choice and diversity in the education of four to 19 year-olds. I hope the House will pardon me if my own small contribution is rather unusual. I would like to offer a few thoughts on only one word. I will be short, superficial and serious.

I must confess that I have never been entirely easy with the overarching importance which the party opposite seems to give in the vocabulary of education to that idea of choice. I remember watching Mrs. Thatcher as she then was after one or other of the Conservative Party's election victories—I cannot remember which—addressing the workers at Conservative Central Office and congratulating them, and then exhorting them to new and further efforts and saying, "We must give them more choices". The implication seemed to be that choice is, in itself, an ultimate good, and the more choices one has the better one's life will be.

If I beg leave to doubt its supreme moral value, it is perhaps because I have never been convinced of the ultimate importance of consumerism. I once walked into a vast supermarket in Washington DC in search of a packet of cornflakes. I was confronted with a great aisle marked "cereals" which stretched away into the middle distance, and I was obliged to inspect something like 50 to 60 different brands, styles, combinations and varieties of cereal products.

I felt I had vastly more choice than I either needed or wanted, and if I had been able only to select between three or four really high quality products, that would have been enough. In the world of cornflakes, then, so far as I am concerned, more does not necessarily mean better. It may similarly be so in the realm of education. More schools do not necessarily mean better schools. More different schools do not necessarily mean better education unless they, in their differences, are equally good. Wide parental choice is not necessarily good if parents are ill-informed, careless or do not want it. More choice among available schools is not necessarily the most important choice a parent must make for the child. Staying at home and teaching the child to read, setting its imagination alight in a one-to-one parental teaching relationship may be even more important.

In any case, the concept of choice is not simple and transpicuous, especially as applied to a realm so complex and dynamic as education. Rational choice theory is, I am informed, an area of study which currently interests some economists, and is worth deeper exploration. But it begins with the axiom that rational choice is only possible if two conditions are satisfied: first, if all consumers have perfect knowledge; and, secondly, if all consumers possess the means to achieve their choice. It is manifestly true that both conditions fail for most of our population in the matter of choosing a school for a child.

In the world of contemporary education, however, it is necessary first to ask the question: choice for whom? I take it that we would all agree that just as Sainsbury's, Tesco, Safeway and the like are the providers of cornflakes, so the providers of education are the state, which provides a variety of schools, and the private or independent sector, including the Churches, and philosophical groups like the Steiner schools and the Montessori schools. The "consumers" of schools—to use the hideous jargon—can be only the children and to some extent the parents, and the exercisers of choice can be only the children, the parents and the schools themselves.

If this be granted, it is immediately obvious that the children themselves have very little choice indeed. In nursery and primary education they will normally go where their parents send them and that first choice will have a strong determining influence on where their secondary and tertiary education takes place. If your parents send you to Sunningdale or the Dragon School you are likely to go on to a school in the independent section and thereafter, with comparative ease, to a university, quite possibly one of the older and more prestigious of those institutions.

The fallacy which needs to be exposed, however, resides in the next category—the parents. If I have £5 in my pocket and I go to the supermarket, I have the absolutely free and unfettered choice to select whichever packet of cornflakes I like provided that the cost of that packet is not more than £5. It is not so with education. Be parents never so rich, never so powerful, they do not have an unfettered choice among the available schools because the schools themselves have the right to refuse a place to any child without giving any reason. You can be refused by Winchester: you cannot be refused by Weetabix.

Neither is the unfettered choice the privilege and prerogative of the schools themselves. Parents can only apply—they cannot choose—and schools can reject an application for any reason they like, but boarding schools have to fill their beds and the comprehensive school has to fill its available places or else they are on the slippery slope to failure.

So the concept of choice in education is not singular: it depends on who is choosing, and between what. Children have initially small, but gradually increasing, powers of choice as they grow older; independent schools have wide powers of choice, limited by quantity and quality of applications and the need to break even financially; maintained schools have in the past had virtually no choice (you take what you get), but some are now offered some choice of pupils on grounds of ability. That is good for them but bad for the other schools to which the rejected must go. Parents have always had one choice at least—between a state school and an independent school—if their income was sufficient to make that choice meaningful, and it has been the policy of the present Government to increase the choices of school available to parents.

But is this increase in choice of schools what parents want? Is it their highest priority? What evidence can be adduced that they place choice first? They may, but I beg leave to present one fact which calls the possibility at least into question. Parents already have some choices but, according to DfEE statistics, in 1994, the latest date for which such statistics can be provided, 89.3 per cent. of all pupils were in comprehensive schools. Most of those must have been in their local comprehensive school.

What most parents seem to consider most important, then, is a school firmly established in their own community, close to home, which cares for each child, establishes good standards of behaviour and gets good, acceptable academic results. Parents seem to want high-quality schools more than they want choices among schools.

The wisdom of the tribe is frequently displayed in its proverbs. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of one English proverb, first recorded in 1594 in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (Act I, Scene I, line 135). Your Lordships may care to look it up in by far the finest edition of that play in the Arden Shakespeare; I forbear to say who edited it. That proverb says, there is small choice in rotten apples".

5.13 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for giving me this opportunity to speak and for introducing the debate. I should like to speak in favour of greater diversity in the schools curriculum, with reference to the moral debate and to the growing interest in global awareness, or development education. I believe that our children's understanding of world affairs has become more and not less urgent. I feel that the time has come for greater recognition of this in school inspections and in the next curricular review.

This is already an acknowledged area of formal education, recognised at various levels and in several subject areas such as geography, history, modern languages, English and drama and of course religious education. It crops up in cross-curricular themes such as citizenship and environmental education. Above all, it is popular with teachers and with pupils and apparently even with Ofsted, though it has yet to be fully identified within the formal curriculum. For those less familiar with it, the Development Education Association publishes valuable guidelines for teachers and there is a special supplement in this week's The Times Educational Supplement.

For obvious reasons there is a lot of interest in this subject within the aid lobby. In the last week alone three conferences involving teachers, local authorities and aid agency staff have been held in London on this subject, addressed either by the Minister for Overseas Development, the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, or by the new Shadow Overseas Development Minister, Clare Short.

The British Council, through its Central Bureau, the BBC through BBC Education and the DfEE itself are also interested parties, although I wish they had more opportunities to demonstrate it. There is a strictly educational reason for this interest. Development education is an ideal vehicle for the SMSC (the spiritual, moral, social and cultural) development of pupils which is already a clear requirement of the curriculum. The study of international affairs, human rights, social justice, conflict resolution and citizenship all present immediate examples of good and evil in the world today. Of course, I accept, following yesterday's important debate of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, on moral education, that knowledge of the Gospels, and the story of the Good Samaritan in particular, may seem sufficient. But such is today's outpouring of international news that children today need more interpretation of world events which may not be available to them at home. Such is the cultural diversity within this country, and the expertise within the aid agencies, that we already have the resources with which to inform and guide this interpretation.

The recent initiatives of Frances Lawrence, the report of the values forum of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority and Nick Tate's proposal to introduce "critical thinking" on moral values, all fit in with the need to bring development education into the mainstream of educational inspection and assessment.

I do not under-estimate the problems. One has been of definition—the ability of Ofsted to measure performance in development education. The difficulty here is not lack of interest, but priorities. The inspectors' workload is enormous, and they are now being asked to refine their reporting and keep to the main issues. They cannot be expected to know how much development education is already going on in schools, unless the schools themselves inform them.

However, there are encouraging signs that inspectors do like to demonstrate the kinds of initiative which go with global perspectives. Perhaps I may give your Lordships one example. A west country school recently impressed the inspectors with a Caribbean theme which included a visit to Brixton. It was the first time that those children had had any direct experience of another culture. Many teachers have their own experience of working abroad in other societies or in overseas partnerships and they can use these in many contexts in the school.

Money, of course, comes into it—for materials, teacher training and manpower. The Overseas Development Administration believes that development education is important, not least to advertise the UK's aid programme and the ODA's own services to schools. But it cannot, as an agency for aid, spend a very high proportion of its reduced budget in the UK. The European Union, to its great credit, has taken up a lot of the slack and has directly assisted a lot of regional initiatives to help teachers. The aid agencies do a lot, though they have had to cut back many of their programmes in the past two years.

The Labour Party promises to do more through a development education council. I believe that the DIEE, in its various disguises, is well disposed to development education. It would be comforting to hear the Minister confirm that in his reply. A lot of progress has, for example, been made in the area of environmental education.

In summary, I believe that schools, informed by the non-governmental organisations and their local communities, have shown the potential to develop materials and to deliver education on many international issues which could be more widely shared at various levels of education. This Government still have an opportunity to assist that process in the next curricular review if they really believe in it. The evidence is that schools are now taking it on, but acceptance often depends on the ingenuity of teachers rather than the system, which can sometimes appear to work against them and against diversity in education.

I look forward to hearing the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on this subject as we have worked together. I am sure that she shares many of the opinions I have expressed.

5.20 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I, too, wish to start by thanking my noble friend Lady Perry for introducing this debate today. She has chosen a most important subject. I believe that education is top of the political agenda in this country. I begin my remarks by referring to a matter which she mentioned; namely, the completely untrue belief held by some that much of the education system is in a state of collapse. I pay tribute to the overwhelming majority of teachers who do a good job in our schools, often in difficult circumstances, and who deserve our support.

It will no doubt be much to the surprise of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, when I say how much I enjoyed his speech. Of course, I always enjoy his speeches. First, I love his Welsh accent which does us all so much good and carries us along. One sometimes wishes he would put his words into verse. I must certainly look at the version of the works of Shakespeare which he edited so that I, too, can mention a few quotes the next time I speak. I particularly enjoyed his speech this afternoon because it is so unusual to hear the ideas of "old" Labour. I began to wonder whether I was hearing him correctly. The noble Lord was in effect using the argument that because everyone cannot have choice, no one should have any choice. He should speak to one or two of his colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench—I would not dream of naming names—who do not seem to take quite the same view of that matter. They put choice in education top of their agenda. In effect the noble Lord was saying—this was believed just two years ago—that there was no more need to choose where to send one's child to be educated than to choose where to post a letter.

I think that choice is important. One may make a joke of it, but it is a serious matter. Its importance for parents and pupils cannot be over-emphasised. Choice has raised standards and it is raising standards. However, as my noble friend quite rightly said, that takes a long time. It has been a case of choice backed by information. I do not think any government have ever provided parents with as much information about schools as have the present Government. I recall that when I was an education Minister the first Bill that we put through in 1980 required information to be given to parents about schools and required schools to publish information about themselves. They are now required to publish information about their curriculum, their examinations, their pastoral care and other matters because if one is to exercise choice it must be informed choice. I believe that one of the reasons that we now have this welcome figure—I am sure we are all agreed on that—of 71 per cent. of the school population staying on beyond the compulsory leaving age is that there is such a wide variety of schools for pupils to attend. My noble friend Lady Perry touched on that matter.

As regards grant-maintained schools, there are now over 1,000 educating some 600,000 pupils. The number would be considerably higher if so many schools had not been discouraged from adopting grant-maintained status at the ballot stage by those who should know better. There are 15 city technology colleges and 30 language colleges. There are 151 technology colleges. The results are available for all to see. Ofsted's annual report produced earlier this year showed that just over 900 secondary schools were inspected. Over 20 per cent. of those were grant maintained, but of the 32 that were identified as outstandingly successful schools, 13, or 41 per cent., were grant maintained. In the list of 70 good and improving schools, 31 per cent. were grant maintained. The fact that those results have been achieved is a measure of the success and the help that is being given to pupils. I wish to emphasise how important it is to have GNVQs alongside A levels. It is extremely important that we should achieve the highest possible standards in vocational education.

In the time that remains to me I wish to touch on what I consider to be an important aspect of the diversity that we have given to parents and pupils; namely, the assisted places scheme. That scheme is popular with parents and with pupils. I am pleased that it is to be extended in the new education Bill to come before Parliament. The assisted places scheme provides a much wider choice. In 1991–26, 42 per cent. of all free places were given to families whose gross incomes were less than some £9,500 a year. Some 60 per cent. of the places were allocated to pupils from families whose incomes were less than £13,000 a year.

Pupils in assisted places schemes have done extraordinarily well in public examinations. In 1995 the pass rate of assisted places pupils in public examinations was over 94 per cent. at both GCSE and A level, which is better than that achieved in independent schools generally, or indeed in maintained schools. Some 51 per cent. of assisted places pupils achieved either an A or a B grade at A level, and 77 per cent. achieved either an A or a B grade at GCSE level. Some 90 per cent. went on to higher education. Some research has been produced recently on the advantages of an assisted places scheme. That research shows that assisted places pupils were entered for significantly more A and AS levels than their counterparts in the maintained sector. As measured in the annual performance tables published by the DfEE, the overall benefit for assisted places pupils was an average of between 3.2 and 6.2 points. When one translates that into grades, one finds that the overall advantage for assisted places pupils amounted to between one-and-a-half and three A level grades over all subjects taken. It is well known that for many sixth formers two or three grades at A level constitute the difference between acceptance and rejection for a popular course at one of the more sought after universities. That is quite a remarkable achievement.

I am quite certain that someone will say, "Ah, but of course it costs so much more to provide an assisted place than one in a maintained school". However, that is not the case. The average net cost to the state of an assisted places pupil in 1991–26 was £3,700. The standard spending assessment for local education authorities for pupils under the age of 16 in secondary schools is £2,600, and for those over the age of 16—that is, those in the sixth form—it is £3,600. The comparison of costs is not exact as maintained school pupil costs do not include either capital costs or administrative costs, whereas in the case of independent schools those costs are included. When one takes that factor into account, there is barely any difference at all between the cost of an assisted places pupil and the cost of a pupil in a maintained secondary school. That is relevant to the important debate about the amount of money which might be saved if the assisted places scheme were ended. My figures show that at the end of the day no money would be saved by that course of action, and the only people who would suffer would be the children themselves. It is also claimed that the assisted places scheme results in the brightest pupils being "creamed off' and leaving the maintained system. In fact only 1 per cent. of the pupils in any age group are assisted places pupils. Therefore the argument hardly stands up to analysis. But even if it were true, one has to ask whether it is right to sacrifice the child for the sake of the school. I think that it is not. The scheme has given to many pupils a benefit which otherwise they would never have had. It not only benefits the pupils but the country as a whole when those pupils are qualified.

I believe that it is a remarkable scheme. I am glad that it will be extended. I wish that it could be further extended because it is a scheme that many parents want. The scheme is for the benefit of pupils and not of schools.

It is very sad that the one certain pledge of the Labour Party for the next election is that it would phase out the scheme, but such a course would just damage the opportunities for many pupils. I am sorry that the Liberal Democrats are so uncertain about the issue. So far as I can see—I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, will correct me if I am wrong—the Liberal Democrats have said that they will end the scheme and replace it with something from central or local government. However, as I have seen no details I do not know what they would do. It would be helpful if the noble Baroness would explain their position to us.

This is one of the most important aspects of the argument about diversity. However, I do not refer only to assisted places. I wish to speak in some detail; this is a matter of important public policy. The assisted places scheme was introduced because the last Labour Government removed the direct grant from a number of the best schools in the country—schools that were the backbone providers of scientists in this country. In removing that grant, ironically, at a stroke, the Labour Government managed to create more independent schools than any other government. I am sure that that was not intended, but it was what occurred. The assisted places scheme was brought in to make up for that loss.

I wish to commend what the Government have done. I hope that the scheme will be increased for the benefit of all.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, will she accept from me that I have not been so flattered since I cannot remember when. However, to describe me as old Labour is a most serious accusation. I am new to the point of being scarcely conceived. Will the noble Baroness do me the honour of reading carefully tomorrow what I said in the Official Report; and, when we next meet, will she show me where I said that because all cannot have choice no one should have choice? I prepared my speech very carefully. I read every word; I did not improvise at all; and I never said that.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I do not wish in any way to quarrel with the noble Lord. I shall certainly read his speech carefully.

5.32 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, choice and diversity in education is of great importance, as has already been proclaimed by my noble friends Lady Perry of Southwark and Lady Young, but with far greater authority and expertise than is at my disposal. I do not know the difference between new and old Labour so I shall not try to entertain any such suggestion. I regard the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, as a great expert on educational matters and as having a fair-minded approach. To be perfectly fair to the noble Lord, I have to say that I did not really understand what he said. I shall have to read his speech. Although I read philosophy at Heidelberg before the war, I still cannot come to grips with what he said. Is the value of choice when set against the evils of enforced unanimity greater or less? I do not ask for a reply. That is how I shall seek to approach the problem if the noble Lord will try to understand and forgive me.

However, I think that the noble Lord will agree that choice and diversity are also of importance to those in the murky backwaters away from the mainstream, some with a high IQ rating, who have serious learning difficulties either unrecognised or in want of appropriate remedial treatment.

At the outset perhaps I may thank my noble friend Lady Perry of Southwark for introducing this debate, which affords an opportunity to consider this aspect of their choice. In that context, my noble friend Lady Perry referred to children with SEN in the context of choice of school, choice of subject, vocational and academic, and in particular for the 15 to 19 year-olds. My noble friend also said that many things were not right in the education system. I lead on from there in this context. The concern is for those and their families for whom there can be no realistic choice in any regime of diversity unless innate frustrations engendering indiscipline are alleviated; and until the barriers to learning have been recognised and broken down. Only then will a potential aptitude on which any informed choice may be made become apparent. Surely choice and diversity assume the touchstone, "each child according to his potential aptitude". On that no doubt the Minister might well agree without reservation.

If the bedrock of the educational system is that it is able to contain indiscipline and truancy, and to encourage good behaviour, so be it. But proposals to detain pupils, to exclude pupils or for compulsory home school agreements, would have no relevant or remedial effect on those in want of treatment for serious learning difficulties.

It is well established that disruptive and violent behaviour is often caused by dyslexia unrecognised or untreated. There is a critical shortage of speech therapists. There is no obligation upon the governors to appoint an SEN co-ordinator with any specialist training.

A review by way of clarification is warranted not only to define the respective legal, financial and specialist staffing obligations of schools and of the LEA but also to identify funding arrangements as to requisite provision for children with SEN. Such matters do not fall within the limited intendment of the Education (Special Educational Needs) Bill due to be read for a second time this evening. But there is much hidden, unknown, unused, latent potential aptitude which inhibits rational choice at all events during those crucial formative years, say, from about five or six to 19 years.

Perhaps my noble friend the Minister may care to look into this. I ask him to be good enough to do so, and to leave a letter in the Library. That would be a gesture of good will on behalf of a Government that I support and shall continue to support which would be much appreciated.

5.39 p.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Perry for the subject of this debate. I join in her tribute, and the tribute by my noble friend Lady Young, to our many good schools and teachers. There is no doubt in my mind of the need for diversity in the provision of education in schools and colleges in order to provide for the immense variety of children's needs so as to take full account of the range of their talents and therefore also to give their parents the freedom to exercise choice.

I welcome the adoption by the Government of a national curriculum, so that when families move house their children can still progress steadily through a familiar curriculum, which also ensures that all children will build their future education on a common base, including the basic needs of good English; efficient numeracy; familiarity with science and technology; modern languages; history; geography; art; music; PE; and, last but by no means least, religious education.

As children grow older if they are well taught their talents begin to blossom. I am very much in favour of setting by subject rather than streaming, so that high abilities can be stretched and encouraged and remedial work can be given to those who are struggling with a particular subject. That education needs to be broad-based if young people are to be well prepared for their lives, especially their working lives in the 21st century.

Recently the Parliamentary Scientific Committee, which includes Members from both Houses, industrialists and academics, held a seminar on "Competitiveness and Success in British Industry". It emphasised the need for manufacturing industry to attract enough of our brightest and best youngsters and the need to set industry in its true position, reflecting wealth creation, betterment of quality of life and exciting career opportunities. The committee emphasised the need for more partnership between schools and industry and commerce, so as to give children imaginative work experience on which to base their later choice of career. That is happening, but needs to take place in every school.

Careers guidance is very important. Careers staff need to have successful work experience themselves outside the teaching profession if they are to be able to advise children in an informed and realistic way. The report of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee recommends that, it should be a requirement that teachers with careers advice responsibilities have had at least a short spell of structured working in industry". The Government, in their new education Bill, lay emphasis on the importance of careers advice. I hope that they will include that requirement in the careers advice section of the new Bill for all careers teachers and advisers. As my noble friend Lady Perry said, poor careers advice through lack of knowledge can be counter-productive.

There are many reports of a shortage of skilled engineers, especially in the North-East, where there is much inward investment in manufacturing industry. Noble Lords will not be surprised that an engineer refers to this important engineering field. I hope, too, that the Government will continue the "top flight" bursary scheme, which attracts able young people into the engineering profession. The Neighbourhood Engineers scheme and the Women into Science and Engineering campaign, set up by the Engineering Council, provide important adjuncts to the curriculum in this important field. As engineering is not a school subject and therefore very few teachers, if any, will have first-hand experience, it is a very important matter. Successful and interested parents who are working in the field themselves can help children to make informed choices by encouraging their firms to set up co-operative schemes with their children's schools so that the children can experience the excitement and challenge of solving realistic industrial and commercial engineering problems. Young Enterprise and the Young Engineer for Britain competition encourage interesting, unusual and essential talents in children which will stand them in excellent stead when they leave school and lead to jobs where there are clear skills shortages.

Charitable work in schools on behalf of the less advantaged, and participation in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme, with its accent on service, give young people a marvellous outward-looking attitude towards other people, which, again, is so vital to future successful careers. It is also important in its own right, and many young people in my experience carry out excellent service to other people. I wish that it were given more publicity.

Selective schools taking a small proportion of the ability range, as in Essex, do of course demonstrate how their students can achieve outstanding success in their specialist subjects. They can work at a fast pace and approach the boundaries of those subjects so that they are well prepared for demanding university courses and learn to work hard themselves on an individual basis in their future careers.

At the same time, local comprehensives can be very successful in sending young people on to university and other further education. The publication of results has encouraged greater success in those schools. Now, about 30 per cent. of the age group proceed with their education beyond school. I was interested to hear my noble friend Lady Denton say this afternoon that in Northern Ireland the figure is 41 per cent.

The assisted places scheme can give inner-city children from families living on low incomes the opportunity to take up places in independent schools. That is a precious freedom of choice for those parents. Inner-city parents can otherwise feel that they have little choice by which to offer their children the upward chances that they so badly want.

Grant-maintained schools are developing, through the initiative of their very locally oriented governing bodies, very interesting specialisms for their schools: technology; drama; music; perhaps single-sex groups in maths and science; modern European languages and exchanges with schools abroad. I refer to schools near home, in Essex, and there are many more examples elsewhere.

Parents clearly appreciate those kinds of choices, which they can take up to match their children's special abilities. If parents choose a school, they back it; and co-operation between teachers and parents is probably the best guarantee of success for their children, as my noble friend Lady Perry also emphasised. The child senses that co-operation, is aware of the joint aims of school and home and therefore knows where efforts should be applied to achieve those aims. New Clause 30 in the education Bill, proposing home-school partnership agreements, is an excellent idea. I wish it well. I am sure that it will be a great help to better school morale.

Another important choice comes at 16. Many middle ability children do not feel sufficiently valued in school. They will be vital to our prosperity as a nation in the future and can be very successful in non-academic ways with which schoolteachers may not sympathise or which they may find difficult to encourage. I am greatly in favour of those young people being given a free choice and actively encouraged to enter local colleges of further education at 16. The courses provided will be very much more practical and vocational, whether in business studies, retailing, design and technology or engineering. The choice is legion, especially since the colleges have become independent. The young people perhaps succeed in initial City and Guilds and NVQ courses, and realise for the first time their latent abilities and capacity for success in new fields of which they have not previously been aware. A fresh start becomes a successful career path for the future.

Young people are succeeding in many new fields which they would never have attempted before. Life-long learning is available locally in both further and higher education if the opportunities are grasped. Freedom of choice and diversity of provision, particularly in close co-operation with local employers and TECs, can open doors for young people that were firmly shut in days gone by. Long may those opportunities be available under the present Government.

5.49 p.m.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, the fact that I shall detain your Lordships for a very short time means that I have plenty of time in which to offer my deepest apologies for the fact that I was not in my place to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, open the debate. I was informed only this morning that the first debate would be the longer one and the second debate the shorter and therefore I was late, for which I repeat my apology.

Those like myself who might

be described as "hexameter friendly"

Notice with pleasure the fact

that the "choice and diversity" title

Fits so well with the rules

which govern this classical metre.

Classical too is the theme

on which I wish to address you.

Most of us will, I am sure,

accept that a broad education

Should be provided for all,

irrespective of family income.

Only will those so endowed

live out their lives to the fullest.

But—and there's always a "but"—

"broad" does have so many meanings.

Mine is the one which includes

some study of Greek and of Latin.

That's why I chance my arm

in adopting the metre of Virgil; Thus underlining my case

for reversing the prevalent practice.

Too few schools now give

their pupils a grounding in Classics;

Nor does the curriculum

find space for classical culture.

Hence are so many denied

the true meaning of everyday English.

Everyone here knows well

that today is Mercurii day.

Scores of our words every day

are of Latin or Greek derivation.

So too abroad do we find

most words have Classical sources,

Making the Englishman's taskߞ

if he's also a Classical studentߞ That much lighter, of course,

as he tackles the foreigner's language.

Now most students findߞ

so lots of research has establishedߞ

Learning time is reduced

for those with a grounding in Classics,

No matter what is required

to be learnt nor what is the problem.

Later in life they find

that their understanding has deepened.

Then are they fully aware

of the roots of their civilisation.

Schools serve needs of today,

forgetting the many tomorrows.

Long-term gain can be lost

through premature specialisation.

Great enlightenment comes

with the study of Rome and of Athens:

Clear as a bell is the mind

which has conquered irregular verbs and

Nouns. But we've seen what perhaps

I could call a decline in declension.

Hence I propose, my Lords,

a return to the teaching of Classics.

5.53 p.m.

Baroness Brigstocke

My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to my noble friend Baroness Perry for initiating this valuable debate. As a former Classics scholar (though it is so long ago that I have forgotten my verbs) I should like to say how much I appreciated the words of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond.

I shall concentrate on secondary schools. I speak from a diverse background in education, having taught for seven years in what was at the time a voluntary-aided grammar school in London, and then for two years in an independent school in Washington DC in the United States, before becoming a headmistress, first of Francis Holland School in Clarence Gate and then, as High Mistress, of St. Paul's Girls' School in London, totalling 25 years as a school head. For the past three years I have been Chairman of Governors of Landau Forte College in inner-city Derby, one of the 15 CTCs in the country which have already been mentioned.

As a founder trustee of the Technology Colleges Trust, together with another Member of your Lordships' House, the noble Lord, Lord Quirk (who is sorry that he cannot take part in the debate today), I am enormously proud of the stimulating learning environment being provided by the city technology colleges, most of them in deprived areas, which cater for students aged 11 to 19 from the full range of abilities and backgrounds, making the greatest possible use of contemporary technologies, establishing partnerships with local industry and piloting some valuable innovative schemes.

One of the most valuable innovations is that students and staff in CTCs have a longer school day and year than those in most state-maintained schools in the United Kingdom. There are 25 hours per week of formal lessons, plus at least six hours of enrichment activities. In addition, the CTCs are open for 200 days a year.

A second innovation is that several CTCs now operate a five-term year, which consists of five eight-week terms, separated by four breaks of two weeks and a four-week summer holiday. This is a unique break with the normal European tradition of a three-term academic year, and the benefits are immense.

Landau Forte College, by the way, has always provided the opportunity for post-16 year-olds to take A-levels and GNVQs side by side. Another CTC, Kingshurst, prepares its post-16 year-old students for the international baccalaureate.

The 15 CTCs have now spawned a whole new range of 151 technology colleges plus 30 language colleges. I understand that it is the Government's intention to have more than 200 of these specialist colleges in place by the end of the year. They are all successful schools which have each inspired sponsors, notably local businessmen, to donate £100,000 for the enhancement of the curriculum in technology, mathematics and science, thus building on the pioneering experience of the original CTCs.

Perhaps I may, by the way, tell the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, that Landau Forte College has recently started an optional class in Latin.

However, CTCs, technology colleges and specialist language colleges are not the only schools doing well these days. Last week I sat on an educational panel for a distinguished charitable foundation, which gave me and my fellow panellists an opportunity to learn about the truly broad and diverse group of secondary schools which were applying for grants to improve their buildings or to provide extra equipment. Some of them were independent but a large number were grant-maintained schools. It would be invidious to give names, but I should like to describe two particularly impressive schools. I have not visited them myself, but I quote from the very full and comprehensive reports of the panellists who had visited them.

The first school is on a split site, the larger part having been built in the mid-1970s on a very cramped inner-city site with only the most limited outdoor space, the other part having been built in the 1890s, about 10 minutes' walk away across a busy road. The school became grant maintained in 1989 after bitter battles with politicians and some local councillors. Fortunately, the local education authority is now more relaxed. Today, the school has over 1,100 pupils aged 11 to 19ߞboys and girls in approximately even numbers. The entry is almost all from the immediately local area with a radius of no more than about 2 miles and there is no academic selection. In terms of ability, the intake is slewed to the lower end and few have a reading age as good as average on admission. The surrounding area can be described bleakly as "inner city" with a patchwork of mean streets and many signs of social and economic deprivation. There are many boarded properties and much local crime. The school appears as an oasis of calm and good order in a threatening area of violence. Many of the parents are unemployed and for many families English is not the first language as there is an overwhelming majority of pupils from ethnic minorities. Yet such is the fine atmosphere that all the pupils seem to get on well with each other and there are few problems of religious origin. It is a truly splendid example of good English secondary education operating in a community where many of the parents themselves have had little formal education.

The other school, which is seeking technology college status, is in an equally deprived inner city area. Although it has over 100 statemented students and another 30 pupils with learning difficulties, the morale is high, the grounds and school plant are well maintained, the pupils wear uniform and there is a very positive attitude among students and teachers, giving an overall impression of good behaviour and confidence.

In my remarks today I have concentrated on the many hopeful signs of improving standards and confidence in individual secondary schools in different parts of the country. We still have far to go but the best way to restore our school education system to its former glory and our teachers to their former position of prestige and respect is to adopt best education practice, praising effort and achievement while encouraging teachers, governors and parents to have the highest aspirations for all the children in their care. And the children, of course, need to learn to concentrate, to work hard, to control their behaviour, to think of others and, above all, to think.

6.3 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, on my way here this morning through Great Smith Street, I passed a familiar office building, on the front of which was blazoned the letters DEE. At first, I thought those were the entry requirements for one of the new universities, but I understand that it is the current acronym for the department about which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, no doubt will tell us in his winding up speech. I may say that he has been saved a good deal of trouble by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, who gave us an admirable account of what has been done in the way of improving and increasing the variety available in our education system. I only regret that neither the noble Baroness nor any other speaker mentioned one important aspect of diversity; namely, single sex schools, since it is my opinion that, while my co-education may be good for some, single sex schools have clearly been shown to be very good for others.

We are no doubt embarking on a period in which education, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, is likely to be a staple of our debates. It is reported, indeed, that the Member of Parliament for Hartlepool, Mr.Peter Mandelson, the acolyte of President Clinton, was asked by Mr. Tony Blair what the theme of the Labour Party should be in the coming election and he replied, "Education, education, education—stoopid!" That seems to me to be curious advice. One would have thought that an Opposition party would select some area in which central government had complete control—finance or social security, for example—and would endeavour to find weaknesses which, if it came into office, it could remedy. But to choose education is to choose the one area of public activity in which the Conservatives have not been in control. It has been almost wholly controlled by local authorities, which in turn have been ruled by Labour Party, or in some cases nowadays Liberal Democrat, majorities. On education, as in other matters, I find the distinction rather difficult to draw.

It is not merely a question of political control which has enabled local authorities to resist in turn most of the changes that the Government have sought to make in order to improve the education system—resistance to the establishment of grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges and so forth. But it is not simply a political question. The other matter that we have to face, if we look back over the past couple of decades, is the complete symbiosis between the Labour Party and part of the educational establishment. For instance, the Institute of Education of the University of London, which has done about the same amount of damage to British education as Columbia Teachers' College did to American education in the 1920s and 1930s, has constantly been associated, and still is, with the Labour Party. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, whose presence this afternoon would have been welcome, was an ornament of that institute at one time.

I say that because, whatever may be done about a variety of schools, methods of selection, choice or organisation, fundamentally what makes a difference and in the long term will make a difference is the quality of the teaching—the dedication need not be questioned; in question is the quality—the expertise and the approach which teachers have to their task. I am very moved by the testimony of the noble Baronesses who preceded me to the work that has been done and the improvements that are being made in schools in various places under very different circumstances. But we must not let ourselves be carried away into a feeling that everything is all right.

We still have to face the fact that many recent surveys show that in important respects, particularly in the early years of education, in regard to both numeracy and literacy, our pupils by and large do not measure up to their counterparts in a number of other industrial advanced countries with which we are in economic as well as cultural competition. Until one sees a way through that, until one can say that a British child of nine, 10 or 11 has reached the same level of competence in mathematics—particularly in mental arithmetic—and in English—particularly in the ability to communicate—we cannot regard ourselves as being more than at the beginning of a process of improvement. While I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, that we should have Latin and Greek everywhere if we could, let us start with reading, writing and arithmetic everywhere when one can.

It seems to me that there must have been something wrong with the general attitude towards that basic task to explain why it has not been performed satisfactorily. In retrospect, some of the mistakes are obvious. For example, the use of pocket calculators make it unnecessary for children to learn the basic elements of mental arithmetic. There has been an opposition to learning by heart—what is called "rote learning" by fashionable educators—which has made the English language less valuable to children and less valued by them. We can see therefore in retrospect what has been wrong, but I do not believe that we have yet grasped what we are still doing wrong.

So far as I know the only contribution which the Leader of the Labour Party made to the education debate was the expression of the desire to have more computers in schools—no doubt ultimately to connect them up to the Internet; in other words, to provide more ways by which children can avoid the genuine tasks of learning the elements.

From my point of view, looking back, I suggest that what a child needs in a school is, first—if the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris had said a little more about this I would have agreed with him—a healthy and safe physical environment. Secondly, the child needs pen and ink and access to books. That, in the early stages is all. What does the teacher need? The teacher needs a blackboard, chalk and—though I know the noble Lord, Lord Morris, will not agree with me—occasionally, the cane.

We must therefore seek to reinsert into the school system quite simple things, quite apart from the importance of variety and choice, which become more important as children are differentiated by their talents and possibilities. The trouble is that this debate will only take place within the Conservative Party. The Labour Party shows itself to be uninterested.

In preparation for this debate I read the Second Reading debate on the Education Bill in another place yesterday afternoon. It was depressing. There were many speakers from the Opposition Benches, nearly all of whom claimed to have been teachers of one kind or another and many of whom wore as a badge of pride the fact that they failed the 11-plus—that suggests the examiners knew what they were doing. None of them had anything substantial to say other than to repeat the mantra "Comprehensive education; the same for every child; nothing else is of the slightest importance".

As long as that is the case, we will not have a great debate. It is a pity, because this has happened before. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, is not in his place. I remember, as do other noble Lords, no doubt, when he called for a great national debate in 1976 or 1977. He was so thoroughly sat upon by the then Shirley Williams that he was never allowed to do what he set out to do. It would be good to have a national debate and it would be good if it were not confined to a single political party. I hope this afternoon that we have done a little—particularly my noble friend Lady Perry—to set us off on the right track.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend on the characteristically lucid and comprehensive way in which she introduced this fundamentally important topic.

I wish to concentrate on the principles underlying choice and diversity; to commend the Government for achievements to date in putting those principles into practice; and to welcome further measures proposed in the Bill now in another place. For too long freedom of choice has often been the prerogative of those who can afford to pay for independent education or to move to areas with good schools. Those unable to exercise those options had to accept the education on their doorstep, even if they were unhappy with its quality. I must emphasise however, that there are many good state schools and excellent, dedicated teachers. But there is now an abundance of research which also shows too many schools providing inadequate education resulting in serious under-achievement.

For example, a census of all LEAs shows that, on average, within every LEA, 11 year-old pupils at the top achieving primary schools are nearly four years ahead in English and five-and-a-half years ahead in maths compared with those in the lowest achieving primary schools, even in similar catchment areas. Reports from Ofsted also show too many schools seriously failing the children in their care. There is therefore a need to achieve accountability and to ensure that all children receive the best possible education. Accountability can best be ensured through maximising diversity and choice, hence the importance of choice. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, is not here to hear that response to his belittling of the importance of choice.

I wish to focus on two aspects of policies now being proposed to promote freedom of choice and diversity of provision; first, measures to strengthen grant-maintained (GM) schools by increasing their freedom to develop in ways which they believe will be in the best interests of their pupils and the communities they serve; and, secondly, measures to help to raise standards in schools, including the introduction of baseline testing for children entering primary schools. I shall also refer briefly to the importance of the requirement for all schools to publish information, including details of examination and test results—a point rightly emphasised by my noble friend Lady Perry.

GM schools feature prominently in the provisions of the Bill now under consideration, and rightly so. They are an enormous success. An independent survey by Research International in July this year found, inter alia, that since being freed from LEA control, in grant-maintained schools one-third have increased staffing levels by more than 10 per cent. and one in 10 by more than 25 per cent.; 82 per cent. have increased spending on books and teaching equipment; 85 per cent. have increased special needs provision (47 per cent. to a great extent); 62 per cent. have offered new subjects; 60 per cent. have improved their position in performance tables.; 83 per cent. have spent more on non-teaching staff; 67 per cent. have spent more on teaching staff; 42 per cent. have lowered their pupil-teacher ratio; and 76 per cent. reported an improvement in staff morale.

Those results justify the conclusions drawn by Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation. He said, This survey shows that children are given better educational facilities if they attend a GM school instead of an LEA school, especially if they have special needs. GM schools employ more teachers than LEA schools do. And those teachers receive better support, better development of their careers and are happier at work in GM schools than in LEA schools". He continued, The weight of evidence for these conclusions is now overwhelming and places a question mark over the future of LEAs as presently constituted … On every single measure, the GM sector proves again and again that schools can outperform LEA bureaucracies. It is time for the dead hand of bureaucracy to be removed from state school management once and for all". These findings also provide strong evidence to underpin those proposals in the current Bill relating to the inspection of LEAs and measures to increase their accountability for the quality of service they provide for their schools.

I now turn to the role of diversity and choice. As I have already emphasised, there is abundant evidence of serious problems with regard to educational standards in much of the state sector. There is an alarming increase in the numbers of children aged seven who cannot read, despite already having spent two or three years in school; there is an even more alarming increase in the numbers of pupils entering secondary education who are functionally illiterate and enumerate; Ofsted reports highlight inadequate teaching in far too many schools; and—a point made by my noble friend Lord Beloff—international comparison shows that British children are under-achieving compared with children from other countries, in ways which we cannot afford as a nation if we are to hold our own in the international arena.

In addition to research evidence, I give one example from personal experience, as sometimes a story can be more telling than statistical data. I refer to an experience from the war zone of Nagorno-Karabakh, that embattled, besieged Armenian enclave where 150,000 Armenians have been fighting a bitter war for the right to live in their own land. Last winter, I took a parcel of gifts from a primary school in Streatham to a class of 12 year-olds in a bombed-out school in the capital city of Stepanakert. The school, like every other school, had no windows, no electricity, no light or heating. In temperatures of minus 10 degrees, the pupils sat wrapped in coats, mufflers, hats and gloves. Within one hour of receiving the gifts from the British school, each 12 year-old Armenian pupil had written, with no help from their teacher, a personal letter to one of the British pupils. Those letters were written in flawless English. Each one of those Karabakhi children speaks and writes Armenian, with its unique script; they each speak and write Russian, a second language and a second script; English is their third language and their third script, but their spelling and grammar were better than many 12 year-old English pupils.

I shall give but two brief examples: Our capital city, Stepanakert, used to be a beautiful"— spelt correctly— city, but it has been spoilt by bombing. But I do not want to write about sad things; I want to write about happy things". Another 12 year-old pupil wrote: I like to read foreign"— spelt correctly— authors, Alexander Dumas, George Sands, Mark Twain". How many British 12 year-olds would be capable of writing such letters, even in English, let alone a third language and a third script? How much is this a measure of our failure as a nation to enable them to achieve their potential?

It is against a background of under-achievement that I believe we should welcome all efforts to promote better education for all our children. In primary schools, we should be encouraging every measure to ensure that all young children are assessed from the beginning of their education, and regularly thereafter, to ensure that each child is realising his or her full potential. For those who oppose testing for primary school children—there are many of them, especially from the party opposite—I suggest that their opposition is damaging and groundless: damaging, because unless teachers and parents know how children are progressing, they cannot help them effectively; and groundless, because contrary to all the scaremongering about allegations of "stress" created by testing young children, recent research shows that children enjoy tests. They find them interesting and they appreciate the opportunities of quietness and concentration which they provide.

Finally, I touch briefly on the publication of test results, another issue which has created a great hullabaloo. The advantages of choice and diversity can only be effective if relevant information is available to parents and the public to inform choice and to evaluate the quality of education being provided by different schools and different types of school. Information on school and pupil performance, including test results at key stages 1 and 2, set within whatever context is appropriate, is essential for accountability and the responsible provision of education. I therefore ask my noble friend if he will say when the Government will publish performance tables for all schools, giving key stage 1 test results in reading and maths, as they originally intended to do.

I conclude by commending the Government on the proposals in the new Bill, which will do much to enhance diversity and choice in our education system, diversity and choice which have been stifled by ideological commitments and bureaucratic self-interests for far too long. The time is ripe to build on past achievements and to take education forward in ways which will give all parents and young people the maximum freedom to choose the best education available for each and every child and student. Choice cannot continue as a prerogative of the relatively well-off; it must also be available for all those who have so far been denied it: those whom we as a nation have failed; those trapped in inner cities, with no option but to attend local schools, far too many of which have failed to enable the children to realise their potential. We must move forward to try to achieve high quality provision, diversity to respond to different aspirations and needs, and the genuine choice which is the hallmark of a free and caring society.

6.26 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on giving us the opportunity to debate such an important subject. Disraeli said: Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends". Those are still appropriate words today.

As the father of six children, aged from 22 down to four, I have experienced an enormous amount of choice and diversity in their education, particularly as they range from a university graduate to a child with special educational needs. I obviously take a close interest in the subject of special educational needs and I was most interested in what my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said on the subject earlier. I warmly welcome the recent announcement of £10 million funding under the new schools access initiative. This will enable almost 800 mainstream schools to make better provision for disabled pupils. The code of practice on special educational needs has been widely welcomed. Ofsted published in April a report on the code's first year, drawing attention to improvements in many schools.

I have been enormously impressed by the facilities provided by my own county council and local NHS trust. However, there is a need to set up a multi-agency system to speed up decisions, with one source of funding. In so many special needs cases, there is no clear line as to who is responsible financially. Is it education; is it health; or is it social services? At the moment they each tend to "pass the parcel", which is particularly stressful for some parents, already traumatised by facing up to the reality of a special needs child.

Currently, in order for a child to be referred for a statutory assessment, which may or may not lead to a statement of special educational needs being produced, the school has to prove that it cannot meet the child's needs within its own resources. In other words, it is in the interest of the school to highlight the child's difficulties and failures rather than successes in order to be allocated appropriate resources. I should be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could look at this problem with his colleagues in the health and social services departments. I would also welcome government leadership to enable all agencies to define much more clearly their roles and responsibilities to these children and to their families, from the first moment concerns are expressed, whether the child be pre-school or school age.

It seems to me that the whole thrust of this Government's education policy is to introduce choice and diversity. Children do have different talents, interests and needs like my diverse family, although they do have one thing in common. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Moms of Castle Morris, will be interested to know that that is a taste for different and very exotic cereals at breakfast. It is difficult for a single type of school, particularly at secondary level, to serve the full range effectively. The most able need to be stretched and the least able need help to develop their particular talents.

I am particularly interested in the specialist schools programme. Specialist school status is intended to bring about a long-term change in the school, so that its specialist subject becomes solidly grounded as part of the school's identity. Specialist schools have proved popular with sponsors, parents and pupils. The 181 existing technology and language colleges provide for 180,000 pupils and have between them raised some £18 million in sponsorship. Current budgets allow for the programme to expand to 250 schools, and, because it has been so successful, I understand that the Government will be looking at expanding this further.

Parents want a good education that suits the individual talents, interests and needs of their child. They do have a choice of a different range of schools and there is now much more freedom for schools to meet parents' wishes with the ability to switch from one type of school to another, should the child's development require it.

The Government's aim is to promote a much better match between what parents want and what schools provide. The recent education reforms have given power back to parents who have exercised their right to choose by voting to take over 1,100 schools out of local authority control. That means a greater diversity, with schools specialising in particular subjects, or types of pupil, and looking at what parents actually want. They can match their child to the most appropriate school, as happens in Germany, Holland and Switzerland, where selective secondary school systems are highly regarded.

It is most parents' ambition to send their children to selective schools. This was borne out in the Association of Teachers & Lecturers' survey, carried out by the Harris Research Centre, indicating an overwhelming majority of parents in favour of selection. It is also shown by the high ratio of applicants to places. As an example, it is nearly 5:1 for the King Edward VI Grammar School in Birmingham against a typical ratio of 4:1 for other grammar schools. Labour is opposed to any form of selection in schools, and David Blunkett said in 1994, I have no truck with middle class, left-wing parents who preach one thing and send their children to another school, outside the area". Despite this, some Labour Front Bench hypocrites send their own children to selective schools while pledging to deny this choice to the electorate.

One can sympathise with their reasons. A recent Ofsted report on schools in Labour-controlled London boroughs has revealed appalling results. Over 80 per cent. of seven year-olds and four out of ten 11 year-olds had reading ages below their actual age. Nine out of the ten worst performing authorities are Labour controlled.

There are two areas that I should very much like the Minister to consider. First, could some grammar schools offer the international baccalaureate, which is welcomed by English universities? This would give parents even greater choice and opportunities for pupils to prepare for a more global style of citizenship. Secondly, can schools be encouraged to forge more links with employers, chambers of commerce and technical colleges, to develop apprenticeship schemes? Some time might be spent in either schools or colleges on courses that meet employers' requirements and other periods used gaining experience with the companies themselves.

I am much involved with the motor and motor sport industries, and, as a country, we must continue to produce enough engineers to enable companies, with their leading edge technology, to keep ahead of our competitors.

6.35 p.m.

Viscount Chelmsford

My Lords, education is not my area of expertise, but I have a considerable interest in it. My background is insurance, information technology and management. I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lord Beloff, when he says that there should be more learning by tables and that the calculator is used too much. But I hope that he will agree with me that both the calculator and the computer have their place in education. It is just that they are not being used correctly in his examples.

In 1984 I was fingered, just by chance, by my company to attend a City fundraising exercise on behalf of a then unknown man named John Abbott. I do not believe that we would have gone if the Prudential had not been leading us and told us that they wanted us. John Abbott was electrifying. He told us that children should learn how to learn and that that was more important than worrying about the curriculum. Children should learn how to do things for themselves. They should learn how to make decisions. Things would change so fast in their life time that they had to be equipped to learn as adults.

He thought that computers were key to achieving change. He saw that he would be able to run schools with only 85 per cent. of the existing number of teachers when the computers were up and running. The remaining 15 per cent. would be put out into the local community to try to find out from the children what it was that was needed in the community. In addition, part of the time would be used for retraining. Meanwhile—and that is why we were there—he wanted funds for three years to obtain 15 per cent. extra teachers, which is 115 per cent. of the number of existing teachers, for his schools and computers. His project was called Education 2000. He had seven schools in the Letchworth area. Interestingly, he was mixing public sector and private sector schools together. A head teacher was drawn from the schools to run the project and there were regular meetings of teachers together with activities involving pupils and the local community.

Three years later my own company and others started funding something reasonably, but not wholly, similar in Ipswich for 12 schools, which was called the Ipswich Initiative. It had support from Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Training and Enterprise Council. I quote from the latter's report in 1993: This active partnership between schools business and industry works to educate people for change and, besides preparing them for a technological future, promotes the skills required for a life long learning process". That is a phrase we hear a lot these days.

One year later saw the start of a similar scheme called Coventry 2000. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry is chairman and three schools are involved. They are run by the wife of my noble friend Lord Butterworth. She is both vice-chair and co-ordinator. Coventry 2000 aims to prepare young people for the challenge of later life; a culture change in preparing students for life long learning; how to do it and how to enjoy it. How to enjoy it is a subject I shall come back to.

By pure coincidence today Lady Butterworth kindly sent me a copy of the latest school report. It reveals that an award in the form of a grant—quite a lot of money—was recently made in order to achieve multi-media centres in the three schools. Now a fourth school—it has technology college status—wishes to join the other schools as part of Coventry 2000. So the scheme is doing well.

This year an interesting development took place in Ipswich. It was decided that as the schools were now so well advanced there was no longer the need to pull out a headmaster especially to run the Ipswich Initiative. So the formal side was abandoned. The TECs were so strong in involving the community that that side was running extremely well. The companies were still producing funding for them and weekly teacher meetings were continuing.

So what have we got? Letchworth started in 1985 with seven such schools; Ipswich had 12 in 1988 and Coventry had three but now has four. I dare say that there are others I do not know about because I am not that close to the concept. Are they just a freak in the general scene of choice and diversity in education for four to 19 year-olds? That might have been the belief when they started but is less so today. The whole climate has changed.

Perhaps I may offer your Lordships one or two quotations from the top places in evidence. In its first annual report to the Commission, the EU's Information Society Forum states that the information society must become the lifelong learning society—that phrase again—that education and training must include homes, communities and organisations, and that the teaching professions need help to adapt to the changing situation so that the new opportunities can be fully exploited.

I was recently sent a copy of the speech made at the annual Lloyds-TSB forum—I was not able to attend—by Sir Geoffrey Holland KCB, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, in which he stated: The new technologies transform access to learning: they make it possible for the student to study at a time, place and pace of her or his choosing. They make learning student-centred and call for a redesigned role for the teacher, as the supporter of the learner, rather than the fount from whom all wisdom flows. They dramatically reduce the unit costs of learning and they can make learning fun and an adventure". Here we have "fun" again.

Both those statements focus on the redesigned role of the teacher. Telecoms companies today queue up to give infrastructure to schools. Corporates can easily be persuaded to give terminal equipment, but it is what the schools do with the infrastructure and equipment that counts. I offer your Lordships a 1995 quotation from Dr. Peter Cochrane, head of advanced applications and technologies at BT Martelsham: In my childhood, the home was a desert and the school an oasis of learning. Now the home has the computer and is itself an oasis. It is the school that is now the desert". Not everybody may agree with that.

What does business have to say about education? Not too long ago the RSA's report, Tomorrow's Company, was published. The best UK business talent had been working on it for a year. The report asked the following questions: How do we know that our current educational approach and our curriculum material are adequate to prepare people for tomorrow's business world? Do we include students, parents, employers and the wider community in our efforts to bridge the academic and vocational divide? Do we link the concept of employability with that of life-long learning? Do we reflect the need for multi-skilling, rather than for qualifications matched to particular industries? The answer so far must be "not in general" although a beginning has been made by schemes like Education 2000 which deliberately involve local communities, schools and teachers. The TECs are doing the same. However, quite soon I think that the answer to those questions will be "yes" as the tide is turning, and will continue to turn, towards student-centred learning, teacher support and continuous adult development for careers which require new skills training more than once in a lifetime.

Perhaps I may quote Sir Geoffrey Holland once again: We need to raise expectations in this Country (in the UK). We expect too little of each other". That relates to something my noble friend Lady Cox said a moment ago. It is a devastating comment.

In reviewing the skills that need to be raised, I conclude on a sobering note. The 1996 White Paper on competitiveness refers to a skills audit that was carried out jointly by the Department for Education and Employment and the Cabinet Office. The audit tells us: In the UK about one fifth of adults have problems with literacy and numeracy that seriously affect their participation in the labour market. Those who fail to reach foundation level in these two basic skills are five times more likely to be registered unemployed". I have been encouraged by much of what I have heard today about education and the movement forward. Like many people, I was depressed about the subject, so hearing of all the exciting things that are happening has been good news. On the basic problem of numeracy and literacy, however, we have a long road ahead.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I speak today in place of my noble friend Lord Tope who is unable to be present. Noble Lords who were present when the noble Baroness, Lady Young, was speaking will no doubt have observed that when challenged by her on a matter of Liberal Democrat party policy I had to run for my text. I shall refer to it again later.

I find it interesting that the Motion does not say in what respects choice and diversity are important. In the course of an interesting and valuable speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Perry of Southwark, told us pretty much why she thought they were important. The noble Baroness and other speakers have claimed that choice improves quality. Unfortunately, the noble Baroness and others seemed to couple that with the idea that the maintained sector and comprehensive schools were incapable of producing quality. I entirely disagree with that claim.

I am grateful to have heard so many distinguished contributions. I simply cannot compete with the expertise of a considerable number of those who have spoken, including past Ministers, head teachers and university experts. I was particularly interested when the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, reminded us that, when judged internationally, our standards today are none too beautiful. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is nodding. She suggested that standards were even worse than the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, had stated. I have to ask why that is the case after 17 years of single party government. Mention has been made of the literacy of seven year-olds. We must remember that we have had 15 generations of five to seven year-olds passing through our schools since the present Government came to power and rather fewer generations of five to 12 year-olds although still a considerable number. There has been a good deal of time at the disposal of the present Government to achieve something in respect of raising standards.

We on these Benches have no wish artificially to limit the variety of schools available to parents and children. Indeed, in the pre-school area we should like to see a partnership between the maintained, voluntary and private sectors to achieve a wide range of provision. We look to LEAs to provide what we call "light-touch" guidance and advice to schools rather than heavy-handed uniformity.

It is in that context that I reply to the challenge laid down by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on the subject of assisted places. My book states—I can read because I did not go to a modern school, to follow what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, suggested—that we would phase out the assisted places scheme but allow local education authorities, if they so wished, to set up locally determined partnership schemes such as special needs bursaries or arts and sports initiatives to support pupils at independent schools. That was stated in a far broader context than I can go into now, but it is the key response to the question that I was asked. As a parliamentary candidate I was asked that question on a number of occasions and I always said—this also appears in our document—that the object of public policy should be to ensure that all children in our country receive an education of the same quality as I received when I was at a private school. That does not mean that they all have to go to private schools. That is what the public sector should try to achieve.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, spoke about comparative costs. Again, I shall not go into detail, but every child on the assisted places scheme who goes to a private school will be the beneficiary—not necessarily at a cost to the public purse—of far more money being spent per pupil, because the school will be contributing to the cost of that pupil's education, than is spent on pupils in schools in the maintained sector.

Our belief is that high quality education for all pupils from three years to 19 years, and throughout life, should be our aim so that we can enable students to prepare for work and therefore contribute to the nation's competitiveness—a theme raised a couple of days ago in a different context—to enable them to be good citizens, and for the enrichment of their own quality of life. I disagree that that means, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry of Southwark, said, that all comprehensive schools need to be uniform.

Whereas the Government and most of today's speakers stressed the diversity of institutions, we stress the ability of each pupil in each school to exercise increasing choice as they grow older so that they receive the education that makes the most of their talents and corresponds to their aspirations.

As a sideline, perhaps I may say that at present not everything in the curriculum is wonderful. I agree with the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on the need for a greater appreciation, for example, of what goes on in the wider world. I would add to that a greater understanding and knowledge of what goes on in the EU which will be the context of everyone's lives in the future, whether they like it or not, so they may as well learn something about it. I could bore all noble Lords to death, but I will not, by saying what I believe to be wrong in the history curriculum at present.

We are committed to high quality nursery education for all three year-olds and four year-olds whose parents want it; to small classes in primary schools; to an increased professional standing for teachers through the establishment of a general teaching council, among other methods; to a post-16 provision which offers quality academic and vocational courses, or a mixture of both, to off-workplace education for all 16 year-olds to 19 year-olds in work; and, finally, the opportunity to carry forward education throughout life.

The merging of the SCAA and the NCVQ, projected in the most recent Education Bill, is welcome in that context. NVQs and GNVQs have, as far as I am aware, failed to impress most employers so far. Better standards and accreditation are essential. There may be merit in the measures contained in the same Bill to use a baseline assessment of children at five as a tool to measure the achievement of pupils and the value added offered by schools. That builds upon the work of LEAs in that field.

Overall, however, the Government seem obsessed with the structure of the maintained sector and to giving schools unjustified powers to alter the provision of education in a locality, without any democratic input, by allowing increasing amounts of selection and positive discrimination in favour of GM status. They apparently have also a naïve belief in the powers of the market place to deliver education as easily as fish fingers. That is my choice. Cereals were the choice of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I share some of his doubts about the virtues of choice per se. The disadvantages are that selective schools select the pupils. It is not the other way around. Secondly, the creation of an artificial market place is expensive, as witnessed by the £20 million cost of the nursery voucher scheme which has been described by Westminster City Council as a bureaucratic nightmare. I notice by the way that although the Motion speaks of education of four year-olds to 19 year-olds, not one Member of the Benches opposite mentioned nursery vouchers as giving greater choice to parents. I thought that was interesting.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, with respect, I mentioned five or six to 19 year-olds in relation to children with special educational needs. I am on these Benches, I should think.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon if I misinterpreted his speech.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I did not misinterpret it!

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I obviously misheard what the noble Lord was saying, and I am sorry. The scheme has been described by Westminster City Council as a bureaucratic nightmare. I do not believe that it would have been accepted by the Government had it emerged from the European Commission.

A market place may guarantee quality for some, but it would be at the expense of others. I repeat, for human, social and economic reasons we need all our children to be well educated, not just some of them. Excellence for the few must not be bought at the cost of mediocrity or worse for the many. Surely we have learnt that lesson by now.

The changes which many noble Lords have commended and which the Government have put forward seem to be aimed at reducing or eliminating the powers of the LEAs. Yet light-touch LEAs can help enormously with analysing success or failure and their causes, by providing curriculum and management advice, and by ensuring that all children have the benefit of the best possible education.

I agree with the interventions of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway—I agreed with the main thrust of his comments—and those of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, on the importance of supporting children with special needs and the requirement for a multi-agency approach to the needs of some children. Those children, too, deserve the best that we can offer. That is an area in which LEAs can play an important and valuable role.

I came today from the last annual meeting of the ACC at which I had the great benefit of being able to listen to two senior county education officers telling us of the immense strengths LEAs can offer through partnership with schools in supporting, guiding, analysing performance and stimulating improvement while maintaining the local democratic input into the education system. Let a thousand flowers bloom, but let us remember that they will do so better and bloom more gloriously in a well designed and well tended garden.

7 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject. I join previous speakers in asking what is the intention in and benefit of having greater diversity of choice. Few would disagree with the Labour Party's stated objectives, first, to ensure that in economic terms we develop a high-tech, high added value, high wage economy; and, secondly, that all individuals are given the opportunity to develop their potential talents. Will the return to a form of diversity with increasing selection by ability help to achieve that?

Yesterday, at the conference mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, the deputy Prime Minister expressed great delight, pride and pleasure in this country's success in increasing the number of young people going into higher education. I hope that we in this Chamber can agree that that is a tribute to the work of our schools, parents, pupils, colleges, local education authorities, members and officers and national government when they have managed to work together. Sadly, they do not always work as closely together as they ought. There is no doubt that we must never be complacent and that much is being done. My noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris pointed out that in 1994 89.3 per cent. of children in secondary education were at a comprehensive school in their locality. They too are part of that celebration of success.

The pattern of provision has been tried and tested. Perhaps I may cite an example because I am troubled by the constant party political toing and froing over selection. The former Conservative authority of Solihull consulted the local population about whether they wished to abandon comprehensive education and return to a selective system—that is, selection by ability— and the people said no.

The real issue is on whom we should be focusing our real attention. All the international comparisons show that it is not the top band of young people who go straight from school to university whom, by comparison with other countries, we fail most. It is the pupils who leave school having achieved the average of their age cohort. For the moment I shall leave on one side the issue of whether the average level is higher or lower than it ought to be. Most people will agree that, no matter how high the standards, we shall never achieve a uniform level of success at exactly the same point and age for every child.

What do we do for those children who leave school seeing themselves as average? My personal and political experience in local government is that there is a legacy of the damaging effect of people being told that their ability is such that they cannot go to the local school of their parent's choice where selection is on the grounds of ability. That is the experience of those of us who have grown up in and watched this system and are concerned that too many people did not go to grammar school. I know that the Minister will challenge me if I use the term "secondary modern", so I shall use the term "the schools left for those who fail to achieve the necessary academic levels required by schools which select on ability; the schools left for those children to attend, if there is room, without regard to their academic attainment". Nowadays Conservatives reject the term "secondary modern".

Are we going to achieve anything by returning to selection, or is there a better way of raising the expectations and aspirations of those who leave school feeling that they are average? As a result of the work that has been done, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party and many illustrious Conservatives in the field of education have recognised that early excellence is most important. That is why we in the Labour Party wish to ensure that there will be access to nursery education for all three and four year-olds whose parents wish them to have it. That is an objective; a way of moving forward.

Secondly, the head-start experience in America shows that social and academic benefits have been gained by injecting the right level of resource into early childhood education. It is a tragedy that in some of the most deprived areas more such nursery education schemes are not going ahead as from tomorrow. That could be done were the Government this week not wasting £1 million of a total of £3 million on TV and radio advertising encouraging people to apply for nursery vouchers. Why, why, why? I am sad that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, is not in the Chamber because I well remember his contribution on the subject of well targeted scarce resources. I do not believe that TV and radio advertising is likely to be high on the noble Lord's list of what is necessary.

The Labour Party is committed to a maximum class size of 30 for half a million five, six and seven year-olds and recognises the importance of ensuring that that is funded. I agree with so much of what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about the importance of working together to ensure co-operation in raising standards in our schools. The unification of academic and vocational qualifications for young people within this age group is critically important.

I go further and say that the Labour Party's new deal for the under-25s, its Life Long Learning Initiative, and its commitment to training opportunities for 7 million adults in work with no qualifications are part of raising standards in our schools. All the evidence shows that the children who achieve most in terms of the added value of the educational experience are those whose parents start from a weak base. The child watches the parent take up adult education and learns alongside the parent. The aspiration to success gives the child a hope for the future. Therefore, we should unite in saying that helping to offer parents opportunities is a way of improving the system.

Furthermore, it is extremely important that we ensure that parental participation—the projects which have been so successful—is built upon. A blueprint from Whitehall does not work because circumstances, for instance, in rural Norfolk and the heart of Liverpool or London will be different. However, we must encourage parents to participate. That does not take up a great deal of additional financial resources but it takes human resource time from our teachers. Part of the process of switching resources into the early years and improving the class size helps parents and teachers to work more closely with young people.

Twenty per cent. of pupils have special needs. Should we have had a debate today about whether schools should have the right to exclude pupils with special needs? Are the pupils with special needs who are prevented from achieving the high academic standards set by schools wanting to recruit on the basis of academic attainment to be allowed to bypass the special educational needs legislation?

It has been a very interesting debate. The points which have been raised have been made with a great strength of conviction and commitment. I care passionately—and I know that I am not alone in that regard in this Chamber or alone on this side of the Chamber—about the quality of education which we offer to all our children. If I believed that the most able children could not be catered for in a comprehensive school I would not have sent my own children to one and I would not argue that comprehensive education is a good idea for other people's children. I am a passionate believer in that.

In Lancashire County Council, over 95 per cent. of pupils were sent to the school of first choice before the idea of parental choice was a gleam in the Government's eye. We worked together with our voluntary-aided partners. I find it sad that schools and educational establishments must be freed from the fetters of LEA planning control. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, a well-planned system is better than a warring system with children falling between stools and not having their needs met.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, made an interesting contribution about whether or not we are talking about old or new Labour. I am Labour. I have always been Labour. I suspect that the noble Baroness has always been Conservative. I suspect that we have both modified our views. We may have been soft left, right, wet, dry, old or new in the course of our political careers. However, I respect the noble Baroness's commitment to high quality education and to moral and family values. I urge the Government, rather than spending money unnecessarily on the assisted places scheme, to spend the money instead on the most vulnerable children right at the beginning.

There is so much that could be said on this subject. Of course the Labour Party has made pledges as regards nursery education and maximum class sizes. Of course there is a need to look at the whole issue of streaming and setting. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Platt of Writtle, that streaming is not a good idea. I should like to know how it is possible to set if half of the children from a family are in a selective school and the other half are in a different school along the road.

My noble friend Lord Diamond referred to the importance of making sure that long-term gains are not lost.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Thirteen minutes.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I understand that the time that I am taking is an acceptable time within the rules of the House. I should say to the noble Lord as regards selection by ability, the most tragic thing of all is if long-term gain is lost because of a premature sense of failure by young people who feel that they have been rejected by the system.

I cannot comment on the comprehensive range of contributions to the debate. We have an excellent system but we must not be complacent. Let us not turn our education service into warring tribes and factions. Let us work together for every child.

7.14 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, I start by echoing other speakers who have thanked my noble friend Lady Perry for introducing this debate. My noble friend, with her 17 years in the inspectorate followed by years in higher education at both the South Bank and now Cambridge, knows very well just what can be the product of our schools. For that reason, it is worth starting by echoing what was said by my noble friends Lady Perry and Lady Young and what the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, has just said that there is much which is excellent in our education system. I should not like to echo what I thought were the words of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, who echoed the words of his noble friend the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on another occasion in implying that the education system is, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, put it an abyss and as the noble Lord, Lord Morris, described it, as something akin to a barrel of rotten apples.

This has been an extremely interesting debate and we have had many very interesting contributions. Moreover—dare I say it?—it has also been a very interesting debate in terms of the absences from our regular education debates and from the various Bills which I took through this House in the previous Session. Where are all the old friends—if I can call them that—from the Benches opposite who so regularly tormented me in relation to the Bills which went through and on other educational matters? Where are the noble Baronesses, Lady David and Lady Hayman, the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Dormand of Easington, who spoke only yesterday, I think, on educational matters? It is interesting that they are not here and I miss their presence. All we had was the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, with his quite excellent poetical speech, which I must read very carefully, in favour of the Classics. What a discipline it would be for us all if we all had to speak in metre. On that, I congratulate the noble Lord.

However, I find the absence of other noble Lords from the Benches opposite, which are rather deserted, somewhat interesting.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give us the list of the absentees from his own Benches who normally take part in education debates; for example, the noble Lords, Lord Elton, Lord Ashbourne and Lord Skidelsky. In commenting on absences, he is taking up time and will not be able to comment on the speeches of those who are here.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I shall comment on all noble Lords who have spoken. My noble friends Lord Elton and Lord Ashbourne spoke in yesterday's debate on morality in education. But the noble Lord will recognise that many noble Lords from this side of the House have spoken in today's debate. It is worth pointing out that there are some fairly strange absences and I should love to know where those people are. Are they at some interesting Labour re-education camp being retrained in whatever is the next shift in policy to come from the party opposite? That really would be life-long learning.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Rubbish.

Lord Henley

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, made a very interesting speech on choice. I did not agree—and he would not expect me to—with very much that was in it. I see choice as a virtue in itself and a virtue in both education and supermarkets. We believe that extending choice and diversity is central to our education reforms and our commitment to those principles is based not on any exotic theory but on plain, simple common sense.

I believe that virtually all noble Lords who have spoken this evening are parents. Every parent knows that children are different one from another and those differences tend to increase with age. Young people have a wide range of talents, interests and needs. Stretching the most able, supporting the least able and developing a wide range of aptitudes, interests and ambitions are all very challenging tasks.

It is difficult for any single type of institution to carry out those tasks equally well and that is particularly true at the secondary level and even more so post-16. We want to have a better match between what the institutions provide and what young people and their parents—and I am glad that my noble friend Lady Perry emphasised parents—want. We believe that the best way to achieve that is to promote diversity and to facilitate choice. That means encouraging schools in the mainstream sector and other publicly-funded institutions to develop particular strengths; for example, in teaching particular subjects or types of student, and I shall return to that in due course. It also means giving parents and young people information about and access to the widest possible range of education and training provision in the maintained, voluntary and private sectors.

We know that parents and young people want real choice. We believe also that choice and diversity play a crucial part in raising education standards. They do that in three ways. First, they encourage competition between providers, inspiring effort and enterprise and attacking the complacency associated with captive markets. Secondly, they help institutions to build on their strengths and focus their efforts and resources. Thirdly, they strengthen the motivation and commitment of parents and young people who have been able to choose a type of education or training suitable to their talents, interests and needs.

For all those reasons, the Government have worked very hard to promote choice and diversity. I should like to look at some of our achievements. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that no one had mentioned this, but we introduced the nursery voucher scheme which will enable all four year-olds to have three terms of nursery education before compulsory schooling, if that is what their parents want. That will be in the private sector, in the maintained sector and in the voluntary sector. I am pleased to say that my right honourable friend was able to announce today plans for that scheme to go nationwide from next April. I should point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, who quoted a figure of £20 million as regards administration, that most of that £20 million will go on inspection. Is the noble Baroness really saying that nursery schools should not be inspected? Indeed, whatever scheme we introduced, we would have to spend money on inspection. I believe that to be quite right. It is a justifiable expenditure by the Government.

I turn now to schools. Our commitment to parental choice in education for children of statutory school age is just as strong. It is very easy to forget that when we came to power parents were, in effect, allocated a school for their child. I appreciate that some LEAs are better than others. I see the noble Baroness shakes her head, but I accept that Lancashire is better than some others that I shall mention later. For example, I should like to refer the noble Baroness to Islington, Southwark and others.

As I was saying, it is easy to forget that parents were allocated a school for their child and that popular schools had their admissions restricted to protect the unpopular. We changed all that by requiring local education authorities to give all parents the right to say which school they wanted their child to attend. We introduced more open enrolment to remove artificial barriers to admission.

We have also encouraged schools to become more responsive to parents and pupils by requiring school budgets to be mainly pupil led. That means that parental choice can directly influence individual schools.

To drive up standards, choice must be properly informed. So we have made sure that parents have access to more hard information about individual schools than every before. Again, that was something that my noble friend Lady Young stressed as being very important. School inspection reports are now published, as are school and college performance tables. As I believe was noted, a liberal former headmaster said that possibly the publication of the performance tables had done more to raise standards than any other single reform by this Government.

Further, through the assisted places scheme—and I am glad that many of my noble friends mentioned this—we have given children from low income families access to the independent sector. Over time, we intend to double the total of 34,000 places currently available. As, again, my noble friend Lady Young made absolutely clear, abolition of the assisted places scheme would save virtually nothing. It is not the panacea that the party opposite seem to think that it is, in terms of somehow levering money in to impose an artificial and arbitrary standard class size on all schools.

To increase diversity of schools in urban areas we established the 15 city technology colleges. I thank my noble friend Lady Perry for what she said about the CTCs and, indeed, my noble friend Lady Brigstocke who has personal experience of such colleges in Derby. Both of them were able to tell us how well those colleges have been doing, are doing and how well they will be doing in the future.

As my noble friend Lord Astor made clear, we have encouraged state schools to specialise through the Technology and Language Colleges programme. I believe that my noble friend Lady Brigstocke took the opportunity yesterday when a Question was tabled on the teaching of modern foreign languages to mention the importance of the new language colleges. There are now about 180 of those specialist schools and, over time, we hope to expand that number thus catering for some 180,000 pupils. I can only hope that we can expand that figure much more in the future. However, I have to say that the initial programme was three times over-subscribed; in other words, the number of schools which felt that they could make such a commitment and raise the necessary money from the private sector was three times greater than what we could live with.

We have also given all state schools the option of becoming grant maintained. GM status offers the highest degree of autonomy available within the state sector, giving schools greater flexibility to develop distinctive characters and strengths. Over 1,100 schools—and that is true of both ordinary schools and special schools—educating some 700,000 pupils have become grant maintained and the sector continues to grow. Some 20 per cent. of all secondary pupils are now lucky enough to benefit from the grant-maintained schools. I suspect that that figure might be somewhat higher if they were lucky enough to be the children of a Member of the Shadow Cabinet in another place.

My noble friend Lady Young said that not enough schools had gone grant maintained. I should point out to her that in some nine out of 10 schools parents have not even been given the chance to have a ballot. However, in those schools where there has been a ballot, some three out of four have gone grant maintained. I should like all those LEA-appointed governors, and others, of the non-grant-maintained schools just to consider whether they might wish to offer to their parents the option of having a ballot to go grant maintained.

I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, that I believe his party still represents a threat to grant maintained schools. His party is hostile to GM schools and its policies would undermine them. As I understand it, from its Diversity and Excellence document published last July, the attack is in three parts. First, they would be forced to have two LEA councillors to act as governors. No doubt those councillors would be as hostile to GM schools as is the Labour Party. Secondly, a Labour government would snatch back some 10 per cent. of their budgets and hand it straight to the LEAs themselves. Finally, the Funding Agency for Schools would be abolished and funds would be routed to schools through the LEAs. I do not think that there would be much left of the grant-maintained school after that.

I move on to post-compulsory education and education for 16 to 19 year-olds. The latter now have more choice than ever before. Every young person is entitled to suitable education or training. They can choose from a wide range of general and vocational qualifications, such as GCSEs and A-levels—and I was grateful for the mention by my noble friend Lady Perry and other speakers of GNVQs and even NVQs—and they can mix and match these to suit their needs. They can also choose from a diverse range of high quality providers: school sixth forms, further education and sixth form colleges and work based training.

I believe that much has been achieved but there is more to do. As I mentioned earlier, today we announced our plans to extend the nursery voucher scheme nation wide. That will be well received. The week before last we published our Education Bill which received its Second Reading in another place on Monday. That does yet more inter alia further to extend choice and diversity. Before I move on to choice and diversity, perhaps I should mention—as I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, did—that that will also lead to the merger of SCAA and NCVQs. That was welcomed by the noble Baroness and I am grateful for that. There is also provision for the school partnerships which were mentioned by my noble friend Lady Platt, parts of which relate to careers advice.

One of the most important points about that Education Bill is the fact that it will further extend choice and diversity. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, said that there was not actually that much choice in the system. However, as I understood the gist of his argument, that was, therefore, a reason for further restricting choice. My view is that if there is not enough choice, we should be doing what we can to extend that choice. That is what the Bill will do.

We believe that schools which select some or all of their pupils by ability or aptitude are an essential part of a diverse education system. At present, there are relatively few schools of this kind and their geographical distribution is very uneven. We want parents in many more areas to have access to selective education. That is why we want to encourage more schools to consider introducing or extending selection.

Now is not the time to go into that Bill in detail. We shall have time enough to do so when it comes from another place to this House. I certainly look forward to introducing that Bill. I also look forward to the support that I am sure I will receive from my noble friends when we come to the Second Reading and, indeed, the later stages of that legislation. I can predict, as regards large parts of the Bill, a fairly customary hostile reaction of the parties opposite as they make their usual knee-jerk reactions to any sign of progress in this field. I look forward to the reactions of the local education authorities. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Beloff for pointing out just how poorly some Labour local education authorities perform. I think of the 10 worst authorities for GCSE results, nine happen to be Labour.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, does the Minister accept that if there were to be a league table showing the 10 worst results by county councils, the Conservative councils could only account for one of the 10 because they only control one of the county councils? There is hardly a Conservative council in sight in local government to perform badly, average or poorly.

Lord Henley

My Lords, there are a number of Conservative authorities and I shall say a little about them. The Bill quite rightly will extend the ability of Ofsted to inspect local education authorities. I imagine there will be a number of local education authorities who will not welcome that. But I think that when they look at an authority such as Islington, they might ask why it is that some prominent parents in Islington—I refer to the Leader of the party of the noble Baroness—prefer to send their child to a grant-maintained school in a Conservative authority, using the choice and selection that we have granted. Perhaps the inspectors would also like to ask Southwark why a prominent parent there, Ms. Harman, prefers to send her children to selective schools in Tory Bromley. Those are points worth making. The party opposite accuses us of having done nothing in 17 years—which is not true—but the noble Baroness must accept that the worst schools and the worst LEAs are in areas where Labour has been in power, and has probably been in power since the Ark.

A number of other points have been raised by a number of different speakers and I wish to touch on those briefly in the few minutes remaining to me. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned the importance of placing greater stress on overseas development matters in the curriculum. Obviously that is something that schools can pursue at the moment within the constraints of the curriculum. I must remind him of the moratorium that we have at the moment on changes to the national curriculum. That is something that can be addressed by SCAA or its successor body in any future changes, and in the next curriculum review.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway raised a number of concerns about special educational needs, some of which we shall address in his Bill which we shall deal with after this debate. If I may, I wish to address other points by means of correspondence, as he requested. I wish to respond to two of the points raised by my noble friend Lady Cox. First, I am grateful for her support for baseline testing. I think that is something that noble Lords on all sides of the House would welcome. It might in time provide us with yet more useful information for the performance tables. Secondly, as regards the performance tables, as she knows, we already have them for secondary schools. We are extending the performance tables to the primary sector with effect from March of next year. Getting them out will be a mammoth logistical task. In the first place we intend that they should only include the key stage 2 results because that is obviously the important result in terms of the performance of the schools. Bearing in mind the logistical difficulties, in the future we might consider extending these to the key stage 1 results.

My noble friend Lord Astor asked whether schools could use the international baccalaureate. That is open to them and is something they can pursue as and when they wish. My noble friend also asked about the desirability of schools improving links with employers and with local businesses. That is important. I can give him two fairly encouraging statistics on that. Some 98 per cent. of secondary schools now have links with local business and therefore can arrange work experience for their pupils. The figure for the percentage of businesses that have links with schools is, sadly, somewhat lower, but at 58 per cent. I think it is still an impressive figure and it is one that we could improve on in future.

I have mentioned a great deal of what we have done and I have mentioned what we intend to do further to promote choice and diversity in education for four to 19 year-olds. They are the clearest possible illustration of the Government's commitment to these principles. We believe strongly that the needs of individuals, and the needs of an increasingly complex economy and society, can be met only by a diverse education system offering real choice to young people and their parents. Choice and diversity are not optional extras. They should be integral parts of our education system in the 21st century. This Government will see that they are.

7.35 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, it falls to me now to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what I think has been an extremely informative debate demonstrating the rich diversity available in the education system. I particularly wish to thank my noble friend the Minister for his full reply to all who have spoken in the debate and for the encouraging way in which he has demonstrated that the policies of the Government are directed to increasing diversity and choice not only within the private sector—as some speakers from the opposite Benches seem to believe—but for the almost 90 per cent. of children who are in the state sector.

I, too, was disappointed that we had only three speakers from the Labour Benches, but I thank those who spoke. However, I was disappointed to hear in the speeches from the Front Bench opposite that there still seems to be a stubborn refusal to see the relationship between choice and quality. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, that when I am directed to only one supplier to buy my apples, if my supplier offers me rotten apples I must take the rotten apples. If I am allowed to exercise a rich choice among many suppliers, I can make sure that I buy only good apples, and the supplier of rotten apples either has to improve and start to sell good apples or go out of business. That is precisely the point about consumer choice in education. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.