House of Lords: Education Bill 2nd Reading
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard | Monday, February 10, 1997

My Lords, since I became a member of this House in 1991 we have had an Education Bill every year. At various times I remember Ministers saying ‘this is the last Education Bill we shall bring before you.’ Yet in each year there is a new one.
I believe this is now called the evolutionary approach - as if we were going through the stages of a carefully matured legislative programme based on a coherent vision. I wish I could believe that. But the evidence is against it. As I said in my maiden speech, the government can try to raise standards either by extending central control or by freeing up schools to respond to the varied demands placed on them by their users. I don’t think the government has ever decided between the two approaches, or perhaps even realised that they are in conflict. Each Bill, including this one, has elements of both approaches. That is why I believe we do not yet have a stable educational framework and that the flood of educational measures will continue to flow until we do.
But that is all I want to say by way of criticism of the Bill. The great achievement of the Conservative governments has been to introduce the language of parental choice into educational discussion - so much so that even the Opposition Parties pay lip service to it. But I don’t believe they have the slightest idea what choice actually entails. This is what Margaret Hodge said in the 2nd Reading in another place. “If all schools were good, parents and children could exercise real choice.” I quote her because she said succinctly what all the Front Bench Opposition speakers said verbosely. I suggest that what she said is simply a misuse of language. Freedom of choice is independent of what is chosen. What she seemed to be saying is ‘We will only allow parental choice when we have made all schools equally good by other methods.’ Not only does this deny parents the right to choose things of which Margaret Hodge might disapprove; but it also ignores the role parental choice plays in making and keeping schools good.
My Lords, most people understand the difference between having and not having a choice, even if the Labour and Liberal Democratic spokesmen don’t. Having choice means the freedom to choose; it means variety of things to choose from; it means getting what one prefers. It does not mean a bureaucrat in Whitehall or Town Hall deciding what people ought to have, and stopping them from having anything else.
That is why I support this Bill. It allows more variety to develop, gives parents more to choose from.
In theory the Labour Party is in favour of variety. David Blunkett claimed on 2nd Reading that “the development of specialisms within schools can be operated perfectly reasonably within the framework of Comprehensive schools.” How? He is too bashful to say. How can a school build up strength in music or sport or anything without being able to select pupils with a talent in these areas? This Bill proposes a modest increase in selectivity - up to 20% of places in ordinary LEA schools. The Labour Party of course opposes it. Mr Blunket says that specialisms can be developed as part of “a sensible admissions policy that covers the entire area.” If you pierce the fog, what this means is that the LEA will decide which school is to specialise in what and allocate places accordingly. In other words, the LEA will do the selection.
It turns out Mr Blunkett is in favour of selection after all - provided that neither school nor parent does the selecting. What hypocrisy this is.
The Labour Party purports to see a fundamental contradiction between schools selecting pupils and parents choosing schools. But is this true? Take the independent sector. Do parents who send their children to fee-paying schools claim they are deprived of choice because they can’t get their children into Eton or Wycombe Abbey? Or take the Universities. They select by A Level grades. But it is no less true that students choose which university they want to go to. The truth is that there is no conflict between school selection and parental choice provided there is a sufficient supply of places for which parents or pupils have a preference - not necessarily a first preference, but a positive preference.
The contradiction only arises if parents are forced to send their children to schools which they dislike. That can only happen, I suggest, if oversubscribed schools are not allowed to expand or new schools not allowed to be set up.
Those of us who genuinely believe in parental choice have attached great importance to allowing the supply of school places to vary with demand. This Bill made a modest contribution to that aim. In particular, it allowed oversubscribed grant-maintained schools to expand by up to 50 percent without getting permission. What happened? The Opposition parties combined to ambush that Clause - Clause 3 in the original Bill - in the other place. I welcome this government’s intention to reintroduce it in our House.
The belief underlying the Opposition’s attitude seems to be that no school should be allowed to be more successful or popular than any others, that all should rise together or not at all. This is classic socialism. On the contrary, I endorse what Mrs Gillian Sheppard said in another place, that “Competition between schools is a powerful lever for raising standards.” We must remember that what makes schools attractive to parents is not just good exam results, but intangibles like discipline, ethos, and moral standards, which are often associated with good academic performance. Competition between schools is the surest way of spreading what is called ‘good practice’ as well as variety.
My Lords, Mr Blunket said “we will not deny people the right to opt for the school of their choice.” But whenever the government proposes to extend parental choice - whether by allowing popular schools to expand or variety of school to develop - the Opposition parties vote against it. The only thing they consistently support is more control and more planning. The only choice they allow is Hobson’s Choice - take it or leave it. If this is one of the grounds on which the election is to be fought, I welcome it. We have nothing to be ashamed of, a lot to be proud of, and further to go.