Education in Cities

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O’Brien) on securing this important debate, which is on a matter of great interest to many of us in the Conservative party.

I welcome the Minister to his new post; he and I have known each for half our lives. We were together as undergraduates, when we were also on opposite sides of the political divide. At that time, the Oxford university students union was run by the Liberal Democrats – it was then the Alliance party – which provided an opportunity for us to co-operate. I hope that we can continue in a similar vein today, and beyond.

The issue is most important. Looking through the speeches that I have made in my first year in Parliament I see that this is the first time I have spoken on education, which is not to say that it is not an issue close to my heart – rather, it is the opposite. Many people of my age who have gone into Conservative politics, in particular, were scarred, having been at a grammar school, by worries about those schools being pushed into the comprehensive system during the 1970s. It was a central, defining totem of my political beliefs.

I am glad that there are several Conservative Members present. I do not wish to make a churlish point at this juncture, but it is sad, especially as there are 55 London Labour Members, that none of them is present. It looks as though no cities south of Nottingham are represented on the Government Benches in the debate. However, I appreciate that these are important issues that affect all of us.

As the product of a state school education – I was the first Member of Parliament to represent the historical constituency of Cities of London and Westminster who was not privately educated – I am proud to be able to say a few words about the matter. I will not introduce a blizzard of statistics; I left those to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury. The Minister will no doubt digest them in full before his summing-up speech.

I want to say a few things about the local education authority in Westminster, and in Kensington and Chelsea where I served as a councillor for eight years until May this year. They are inner-city local authorities that traditionally have been run by Conservatives, and have surprisingly strong academic results, given the catchment area. More than 40 per cent. of Westminster’s pupils live outside its boundaries. A significant number of relatively affluent parents opt out of the state sector and send their children to the private sector, which makes Westminster’s results all the more admirable. It is to be regretted that the middle class has been determined to withdraw from the system to such a large extent. 

As I said, as a grammar school boy it struck me that the grammar school system was the antidote to the thriving private school sector. I do not wish to make a narrow point about grammar schools – the Labour party has thankfully moved away from that campaign – but it is often articulate middle-class parents in areas with grammar schools who can make a real difference to parent-teacher associations as governors. There is no doubt that such schools begin to decline the moment those parents vote with their feet and get out of the public sector. Westminster’s education system has been in place only for a dozen or so years since the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority. To its credit, it has strongly improved its standard assessment tests for seven to 11-year-olds in recent years.

I want to say a few words about my own educational background. I was educated at Bishop Wood School – a Church of England school in Tring, Hertfordshire – before going to Reading grammar school. Bishop Wood was an excellent school with a positive aspirational ethos which has stuck with me throughout the years. I entered it at the age of seven, and it was a great guiding force for respect, honesty and security. It allowed pupils to flourish academically in a mixed area of middle class and council estates.

A fortnight ago, I was reminded of my experience there when I visited Hampden Gurney School, a local inner-city Church of England school off the Edgware road in the city of Westminster. The school was opening a brand new building, which took me back almost 30 years to the opening of the building of the school where I had been a young pupil. As an aside, Jarvis – the large construction concern – was responsible for the excellence of the building work on an entirely new site a stone’s throw from Marble Arch. In recent weeks, that company has been in the headlines for perhaps the wrong reasons. However, it is fair to say that it had done an excellent job, which parents, governors and local residents widely praised. Much of its work is outside the railway sector, a fact that has been widely forgotten.

Mrs. Evelyn Chua, the headmistress of the school, leads from the front as one of the best head teachers in the Westminster area. As anyone who has been in education will know, and as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) will confirm, the best schools are led by the best head teachers. That leadership is all important.

I was struck by a comment made by a member of the parent-teacher association, Mrs. Candida Coghlan, that the school was such a success because it maintained high behavioural expectations, acknowledged that all children had special learning needs and ensured that all children had the opportunity to fulfil their potential whatever their ability. Nothing is nearer the truth. The lack of aspiration and the low expectation in many inner-city schools are of great concern.

A minor criticism of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury is that there was a negativity about the statistics, especially in the London areas, which he brought to bear in his otherwise excellent speech. The central idea is that we must raise expectations. We should not have any excuse for failure and, above all, if we are to encourage middle-class parents to use the state sector again, we must impose on schools the view that special educational needs are not just for failing children but for all children. Each child must be treated as an individual.

I appreciate that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall start to wind up. There are some specific problems for London schools, and I should like to address one or two. On pay and conditions, Unison and other specifically teaching unions have insisted on national pay bargaining, which undermines the interests of many London public sector workers. The cost of living and working in central London is much greater than in, for example, South Shields, Middlesbrough or Liverpool. A far more reasonable London weighting is needed to take account of the increased costs and greater inconvenience. Many teachers in my constituency have to live in the suburbs, or even outside Greater London, and have long commutes both to and from work. We all know about the difficulties with the transport system, which the Mayor of London confessed would remain scratchy for at least a decade to come.

I should like to praise Westminster city council’s innovative policy of assisting teachers with lifestyle coaches. The idea made the press on Sunday and is designed to help to differentiate with a benefits package at a time when central Government have put ever more pressure on the funding settlement. If I may make one small point of special pleading for London as a whole, I hope that the Minister will work with the Chancellor to ensure that the area cost adjustment, which has previously been inadequate in taking account of the genuine cost of living in London, is enhanced as far as possible. There has been great speculation that London will suffer with the area cost adjustments for the employment of public sector staff. That would make unbearable what is, for many schools, a crisis situation.

I wish the Minister godspeed in his new post. I know that he will have an exciting time and that, like me, he is the product of a state education. We used to discuss that when we were at Oxford together. I hope that he can make an impact that will ensure that many other middle-class parents entrust their children to state schools so that we have a thriving sector that genuinely competes with what the private sector can offer.