Patten 'avoiding public defence' of schools policy

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Indy Politics
JOHN PATTEN, Secretary of State for Education, was accused yesterday of avoiding public platforms where he would have to defend his plans to promote more grant-maintained schools to an audience who would know what he was talking about.

A Labour backbencher, Stephen Byers, told the Commons that Mr Patten had gained a reputation for declining invitations to speak to important educational conferences or of cancelling engagements at short notice.

The Wallsend MP launched his attack during a debate on a Government guillotine motion to limit discussion of the Education Bill, which makes it easier for schools to opt out of local education authority control.

Introducing the timetable motion, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, said that after 65 hours of consideration, the committee had dealt with only 14 clauses, leaving 230 still to be considered.

At that rate of progress, the committee stage would occupy about 1,500 hours, and if the Lords took as long the Bill would reach the statute book in 2001.

The motion, carried by 298 votes to 258, ends the Committee Stage on 9 February and allows two days for the Report Stage and Third Reading. A Labour amendment to allow three days was rejected by 290 votes to 260.

Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, said the guillotine was being introduced just as the committee reached the clauses on grant-maintained status. The policy had been a failure, she said.

Only 1.5 per cent of schools had gone down the opt-out road; 24,500 had not done so and an increasing proportion of parental ballots were voting 'no'.

Intervening, Eric Forth, Under- Secretary of State for Education, said that something like 80 per cent of ballot results were in favour of grant-maintained status.

When Mr Patten tried to underline the point, Mrs Taylor refused to give way and let him speak. If Mr Patten wanted to participate in the debate he should have attended the committee, she said.

Mr Byers said Mr Patten had cancelled engagements to speak to the Council for Local Education Authorities at Liverpool, to the European Teacher Trade Unions, and to the North of England Education Conference next month. 'He isn't prepared to stand on a public platform and defend the policy in this Bill in front of an audience that knows what he is talking about.'

Winding up the debate, Mr Forth said the Government had not only a duty to honour an election commitment but to make progress on providing a proper framework for the growing grant- maintained sector.