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Selection in Education

3.30 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to clarify the Government's position on selection in education following their defeat in the House of Lords yesterday on amendment No. 138A to the Learning and Skills Bill.

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): I am happy to repeat the Government's position on grammar schools. We have said on a number of occasions that we have no intention of changing the status of grammar schools unless parents wish it. I am happy to repeat that commitment today.

The policy that we set out in 1995 and in our manifesto in 1997 indicated that we would leave the decision on grammar schools to parents and that they would continue with the 11-plus only if parents wished it. Our position remains the same today. In that agreed policy statement, we were clear that we were not in favour of the 11-plus; nor were we in favour of tackling grammar schools without parents being involved. That was agreed by both Houses of Parliament and was affirmed in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

Last night, my noble Friend the Minister for Education and Employment confirmed that position and indicated that the House of Commons would seek to reverse the Lords amendment. I repeat that commitment today--we shall seek to overturn that amendment when the Learning and Skills Bill comes before the Commons.

We fully respect the vote of parents in Ripon, but we find it extraordinary that from one ballot in one grammar school, one should argue that all other ballots should be overturned and the rights of parents denied. If that were the case, a by-election would determine the results of the following general election. Had that been the case, the Conservative party would have lasted less than two years in government after 1979.

While the Opposition continue to run the debate of a bygone era, we are determined to focus our policies on the needs of all children in 24,000 schools and 4,000 secondary schools, on lifting standards and achievements for all. The Government have already significantly extended the diversity and the excellence of the education available to pupils throughout the country. There are now nearly 500 specialist schools and there will be 250 beacon schools by the end of this year. We have brought into the new voluntary-aided sector independent schools, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh schools. The excellence in cities programme, which affects London and five other major areas, has been spreading excellence for all children in all major urban centres. We have been ready to tackle failure wherever it exists. As a party, we are opposed to simply sitting on our hands, as the Opposition did when in government, rather than taking decisive action against failure.

The result of the failure is that children are denied a decent education in whichever school. That is why, through our actions, we have been able to reduce the time that it takes to turn around schools subject to special measures from 25 to 17 months during our time in office.

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We can learn from the past and from existing policy, including the fresh start measures that have been taken over the past 18 months. Today, I can tell the House that we are inviting promoters from the voluntary, religious and business sectors to make proposals to take over weak or failing schools or to replace them with city academies where existing measures to overcome failure have been unsuccessful.

The promoters of academies will have to have plans for improving the education of all the pupils attending the school or schools. We will use existing legislative powers to establish the academies. They will be built and managed by partnerships involving the Government and the voluntary, Church or business sectors. Over the next year, we intend to launch at least one new academy and we will pilot others over the next few years.

We will look for imaginative proposals and new potential for such schools. The aim will always be to improve pupil performance by breaking the cycle of disadvantage and low expectation. Promoters will use different approaches. They will have to fit in with the framework of our admissions code, but they will be able to make imaginative proposals for the schools' management, governance, teaching and curriculum. We will expect at least one specialist focus and, as with other specialist schools, we will expect that focus to be shared with the wider community of schools in the area.

Yes, we will leave the decision on grammar schools to parents, but no, we will not leave failure where it exists in our communities. Unlike the Conservatives, we will take decisive action to change standards, not structures.

The confusion of Conservative Members is illustrated by the statements of their spokesperson in the Lords last night, who tabled an amendment, which did not succeed, to expand grammar schools. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), in the Times Educational Supplement on 1 October 1999, said:

There is not a groundswell in favour of further selection. There is a groundswell in favour of raising standards for all children, whichever school they go to. When they had the chance to prove what they could do with our education system, the Conservatives failed.

Our task is to ensure that we have equality of opportunity and fulfil the potential of all individual children and schools, not with rigid uniformity but with diversity designed to bring excellence. That is why I am willing to leave the decision on existing grammar schools to parents and why I am ensuring that all our attention and our policies and focus are on raising standards for all our children.

Mrs. May: At the weekend, the Secretary of State said that

and that he was not "hunting grammar schools". Does he accept that those words will ring hollow with teachers and parents of children in grammar schools when they hear his intention to put their schools under threat once again?

Contrary to those statements at the weekend, the Secretary of State has confirmed that he is against the 11-plus. Does he not accept that there are many activists

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campaigning against grammar schools who will see that as a sign, egging them on to continue their vendetta? What is his view on the use of any form of selection in education? Does he not accept that, by seeking to reverse the decision to abolish grammar school ballots, he is prolonging the uncertainty for the country's remaining grammar schools?

Does the Secretary of State realise that his decision will hit especially hard in areas where anti-grammar school campaigners have been active--such as in Barnet or at Latymer school in Enfield--where the grammar schools woke up this morning free from the threat of abolition but now face months of uncertainty until the Learning and Skills Bill has completed its passage through Parliament? If he is really interested in raising standards, why does not he remove the legislative death threat from the grammar schools and let them get on with the job of delivering excellence in education?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the city academies that he announced to the press yesterday and has spoken of today will have freedom over their admissions policies and will be free to select by examination and/or interview? Will he also confirm that that would lead to further selection compared to the position in 1995? That was when he told the Labour party conference

At the weekend, the Secretary of State said that that statement was a joke. Does not he accept that it was not a joke then for parents, children or staff involved in grammar schools or for those who aspire to go to grammar schools, and it is not a joke today? Because the Secretary of State spins his message according to his audience, parents now know that they can have no faith in what he says. His claims at the weekend that he supported the grammar schools were simply another example of a Government who say one thing and do another.

Mr. Blunkett: I support excellence wherever it is. The idea that parents are a threat to grammar schools is an insult to parents who have the ballot. One cannot, as the hon. Lady and her colleagues did at the weekend, parade the glory of winning a ballot in Ripon, and then tell parents elsewhere that they should be denied the right to ballot. The hon. Lady cannot parade democracy when the result is in her favour and fear it when it is against her. Democracy involves winning and losing, and giving people the ability to make a choice is an essential part of democracy.

Had we taken action to remove the selective system in Ripon from the centre, there would have been an outcry demanding to know whether we had the legitimate right to second-guess the wish of parents. We did not do that; we gave parents the right to decide for themselves, as we will elsewhere.

Admissions policies will be within the code that we have laid down and on which the House voted. It is important that the action which is taken to improve and overcome failure deals with the children who are in that position. Anyone can improve a school if they reject all the pupils and then select them on an entirely different basis. That is why we have not engaged with the past agenda about structure or selection but concentrated all our efforts on raising standards.

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For those whose memories stretch back as far as 1995--for journalists who have left school since then and for ageing, beloved politicians who have campaigned from that October day to this against what I said--of course "Watch my lips" was a parody. The difference is that after the level 2, level 3 and level 4 achievements in primary school, even an 11-year-old will know the difference between a parody and a joke about a speech. The parody was a parody of someone else's words, at which the conference laughed. The selection policy that was laid out in the manifesto and was contained in the document that was voted on that day was far from a joke, and that policy has been carried out faithfully for four and half years by me and my colleagues.

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