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Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I shall bring my remarks to a close now, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I have given way to him once already.

For too long, the threat to abolish or create grammar schools has been kicked about like a football. The hon. Member for Wirral, South was right to say that that is not fair on the people in those school. Either the Government should have the courage of their pre-election convictions and legislate to remove grammar schools or they should leave the decision to local authorities. At least local councillors can be booted out of office, as we can. I suspect that the parents who vote in the ballot may be less interested once their children have left the system.

10.32 am

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I hesitate to speak in the debate because every time I speak on education we hear the constant refrain of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) about the school that I attended. However, I had no more influence on my education than the hon. Gentleman had on his lack of stature--and they have probably had an equal influence on us.

I wish to contribute to the debate because I represent the constituency which I believe has the largest proportion of pupils in grammar schools; 37 per cent. of secondary school pupils in the town of Slough are in grammar schools. That has a dramatic effect on education in my town. Our experience is different from that in North Yorkshire, where only a handful of children go into the grammar schools, because in Slough, two out of three children feel like failures at 11. That is the real experience of children, because their parents put so much energy into helping and supporting their children pass the 11-plus. It has a devastating effect on the year 7 curriculum in our secondary schools, on the self-esteem of a large group of children, and on the quality of education in the town that I represent.

Do not get me wrong; I believe that the schools in Slough are trying hard to do a good job--and some of them do an excellent job. However, I am concerned about the impact of the disproportionate number of grammar schools. About 16 or 17 per cent. of our year 7 pupils come into the grammar schools in Slough from outside, so many of the grammar school places are taken up by pupils coming in from outside a town that is already highly congested.

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Many pupils are refugees from the system. I vividly remember that, last year, I advised the parents of twins, one of whom had just passed the 11-plus while the other had failed. That experience within a family shows us the truth about the divisions caused by the 11-plus. The family did what many parents of pupils who have just missed passing the 11-plus in my town do; they escaped from educational apartheid into the comprehensive schools of Windsor.

I have no objection to testing. I was a teacher, and I know how important testing is in developing the curriculum for children and in finding out what their skills and attainments are. However, I am worried about a system that creates inflexibility between the secondary modern and grammar schools, and does not allow for different speeds of development. It does not have the flexibility to match the curriculum to each child's growing and changing needs and abilities.

It should be up to the parents of Slough and nobody else to decide the future of their schools. There is some hocus-pocus going on among the Conservatives, and I have been the victim of what I can only call a smear campaign. One of the Conservative councillors in a nearby county has been suggesting, first, that I am leading a campaign to abolish the grammar schools in Slough.

That is not true; the only campaign that I have led in that context was for the grammar schools, the secondary modern schools and the local education authority to be united in making representations to Ministers about getting fair rules for ballots, and that neither side could use public money. The system would not then descend to include abuse of the sort that we faced in our town when we changed the age of entry into secondary education and abolished middle schools. I am pleased to say that many of the representations that we made were incorporated into the regulations.

The second suggestion that has been made is that the question on the ballot paper is misleading. The question on the ballot paper in Slough will mention the words "grammar school" three times, but it will focus on the real question, which concerns the admission policies of the schools in question.

As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said, the name of a school does not necessarily describe its character. Harrogate grammar school is a comprehensive school, and in Slough, seven so-called comprehensive schools have intakes that we would normally associate with secondary modern schools. The right question to ask is about the admission policies of the named schools.

The third lie being peddled is that parents will not be able to vote in the ballots. Let us be clear: every parent in Slough with children under school leaving age will have the right to vote in the ballot.

Finally, it has been said--we have heard it today--that the governing bodies have been banned from speaking out. Any governor can make his or her views heard, but, rightly, nobody should use public money to influence the ballot. Parents should make up their own minds. That is what I expect and want to happen in Slough.

In the meantime, I am focusing on the real issue, which is not whether we have an 11-plus or not. We should be asking, "What are you doing to make the schools in your constituency better?" The education action zone in Slough

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is now being launched, and I have put a huge amount of effort into persuading the Department for Education and Employment that we need that scheme.

For example, our secondary schools have real problems in recruiting and retaining excellent teachers. We need a structure for better collaboration across the 11-plus divide, so that every child in Slough can have an excellent education. The education action zone represents one step in that direction.

However, we should not get hung up on structures, on the names of schools, or on who is allowed into them. Our duty as politicians and as people who care about children's learning is to ensure that every school, whatever its entry policy, is excellent, and that all children get the best education, as they deserve. I promise the people of Slough and Members of the House that I am running that campaign and no other.

10.40 am

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on securing this debate and on his highly effective advocacy of the case for retaining grammar schools. At the risk of embarrassing the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) and doing grave injury to his future political prospects, I congratulate him too on his powerful, honourable and brave speech, which was applauded by Conservative Members.

Nowhere is the chasm between the Labour party's pre-election rhetoric and its post-election reality more eloquently illustrated than by its policy on grammar schools. On 7 February 1997, the then shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), referring to grammar schools, declared that a Labour Government would pose

Following that lead, on 3 April 1997, the then Leader of the Opposition said of the existing 160 grammar schools, "Let them remain".

    "What matters is what works",

he said. "Standards, not structures", he said.

    "A Labour Government will not destroy your grammar schools. That is my personal guarantee",

he said.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There has been and always will be serious debate about the principle of selection in the education system, and if all schools in the country were of a standard of which we could be proud, there might be some point in focusing on that debate. However, schools in many areas are of such a low standard that the Secretary of State himself is deeply anxious, and to attack schools that are acknowledged to be successful is a disgraceful diversion from the proper focus of our debate.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that we will not improve the rest of our schools if we destroy the best of our schools. Why did shadow Education Ministers and the then Leader of the Opposition give those reassurances about grammar schools? They knew that grammar schools were

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successful beacons of excellence in our education system and they sought to assuage the concerns of those who supported those schools.

Grammar schools are renowned for their academic results, sporting prowess and cultural achievements. They have a long tradition of sending people into business, the professions, the media and public service. There are many grammar schools of outstanding calibre across the country. I shall mention only one, which is in my constituency. The Royal Latin grammar school, whose head teacher, Cecilia Galloway, provides inspirational leadership, has outstanding governors, supportive parents and motivated pupils.

The Government sought, when they were in opposition, to reassure us. What is the post-election reality? As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West pointed out, it is different from what the Government promised. First, the Government have created in the petition process a potential charter for cheats. My predecessor on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), and I have had two letters from Electoral Reform Ballot Services Ltd, dated 15 June and 28 September. Neither of those letters was remotely successful in reassuring us that there was no possibility of fraud. There is clearly a likelihood of fraud because there is no requirement for signatures to be validated.

Secondly, the electorate in stand-alone ballots and group ballots is perversely chosen. It is monstrous that parents of grammar school pupils, who have a direct interest in the outcome of the ballot and in their children's educational life chances, will not be entitled to vote.

Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West rightly pointed out and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) failed to recognise, the question is loaded against grammar schools principally because it does not make it clear that votes against grammar school status would sound the death knell of the schools and result in the abolition of grammar schools throughout the country. Fourthly, the Government have provided a one-way ratchet that facilitates the destruction of grammar schools, but does not permit their creation.

What are the likely effects of grammar schools being abolished? There are two effects of which the House should beware. The first is damage to education: lower standards, reduced choice and guaranteed disruption during the transition period. The second effect is financial cost due to the impracticality of converting schools. It is estimated that if grammar schools in Kent were scrapped, we would be faced with a £150 million bill simply for bricks and mortar, and a conservative estimate of the nationwide cost is £500 million.

Labour Members too often display a breathtaking naivety about the prospects of conversion. The director of education in Buckinghamshire has pointed out that the size and configuration of grammar schools do not readily lend them to conversion into comprehensive schools. They are full to bursting; they are built on the green belt, where there is no scope or desire for additional development, and the capital costs of reorganisation would be prohibitive. In those circumstances, it is absolute nonsense for the Government, who have

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emphasised the importance of standards, not structures, to interfere with the structure of some of the finest schools in the country. That is a disgrace.

The disgrace seems even greater when we reflect on another fact of which I know my right hon. and hon. Friends will take note: the campaign against grammar schools throughout the country is not spontaneous and is not conducted by well-meaning, independent-minded individuals acting alone, of their free will, against the best schools in the land. As The Sunday Times reported on 27 June, it is

which is being aided and abetted by dozens of Labour party activists the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. As the report said, it is a centrally co-ordinated campaign by egalitarian hooligans and educational vandals. They want to destroy what exists and, as the then Leader of the Opposition said, what works, in favour of an untried and untested method that conforms to the egalitarian prejudices of Labour party members, who think that children should be used for social engineering. We believe that children have innate rights and should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Does it not stick in the gullet of my right hon. and hon. Friends, as it does in mine, that the Prime Minister--who is himself the product of privilege--is standing idly by with a grinning countenance, allowing to go to the wall prized institutions that, for generations, have provided a ladder up which bright children of modest means can climb? That is the disgrace of the Prime Minister's position. He is more interested in the internecine politics of the Labour party and in deal-making, brokering and keeping the peace than in the prospects of this country's children.

Members of the Labour party and, I regret to say, the parliamentary Labour party think that their children are a class apart and that what is all right for them is unacceptable for everybody else. I give fair warning to the Labour Members concerned--they know who they are--that they can, if they wish, lurk in the darker corners and more secluded recesses of the Palace of Westminster, but lurk, and not for very long, is all that they can do. They can run, but they cannot hide because there will be no hiding place for Labour Members who speak with forked tongue, who practise double standards, and who say one thing and do another.

Those standards might be acceptable to the Labour party, but they are unacceptable to the Conservative party and to the hundreds of thousands of parents of all political affiliations who support the grammar schools. They support them not because they are politically motivated, but because they are concerned about education, and rightly so.

Tawney, the great egalitarian socialist philosopher, said that it was important that there should be the maximum diversity of type among secondary schools. How right he was. Tony Crosland it was who declared, in unprintable language, his determination to destroy every last grammar school in England and Wales. How wrong he was, and how fortunate that he failed.

However, I say to the Minister, whose local newspaper has accused her of doing an incredible disservice to Birmingham's grammar schools, that Tawney's and Crosland's statements had one thing in common: they were honest positions. This Government's position is not.

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It is slippery. It is disingenuous. It is designed to cause confusion, and it is a back-door method of destroying the best schools in this country. That is wrong. We will resist it, and we will support those throughout the country--head teachers, parents and pupils--who know that their schools are successful, who resent the Government's intrusion in their affairs and who are determined to fight, fight, fight and win.

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