Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): Does not my right hon. Friend think that there is something very sad about the Conservatives' obsession with the grammar school ballot issue when 95 per cent. of our children are not educated in that system? Does he accept that when I speak to teachers, parents and children in Blackpool, they are concerned about issues such as the raising of standards, the success of the literacy and numeracy hours, the family learning centres and all the other initiatives that the Government have introduced, not the paranoid obsessions of the Conservatives?
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Does the Secretary of State agree that this is a sad occasion? Even though we have had a social exclusion report, "Bridging the Gap", which said that 9 per cent. of our young people leave school with no qualifications, no hope and no future, we spend our time on an obsession with the 4.5 per cent. of our youngsters who are in grammar schools. That is the real disgrace of what is happening today. Does the Secretary of State agree that, between 1979 and 1997 under the previous Administration, there was a net loss of 96 grammar schools? In fact, roughly one grammar school out of every three or four disappeared, without arousing much protest from Conservative Members,
However, does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are serious flaws in the current ballot arrangements? For example, one in four of those eligible to vote in Ripon had put their children in private schools. The children in the grammar school were denied a vote. No full explanation was ever offered of what would happen when the grammar school was abolished, and the local education authority was not allowed to put in place the organisational structure needed to pick up the pieces if the grammar school had been abolished.
Is the Secretary of State prepared to do more than overturn the Lords amendment? Should not he give serious consideration to the question of ballots, and to the idea that LEAs should be responsible for all schools and admission arrangements in their areas?
Mr. Blunkett: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman's first point about the number of grammar schools for which selection was abolished by the previous Government. I have travelled the country over the past
I am not prepared to reopen consideration of the ballot question. When my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) attended the preparatory schools conference just before the last general election, he committed the Labour party to including those of primary age who were in the private school sector. He did so because he thought it right that parents with children in any school that had a direct feed into an area's grammar schools should be part of the total picture. It would be wrong to consider reopening that debate now. Those who are engaged in seeking the petition for a ballot should be allowed to progress under the existing rules.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): May I urge my right hon. Friend to continue his pursuit of a vision of diversity and excellence? He should not be distracted by a petty squabble whipped up by Conservative Members about the 4.5 per cent. of the population who are obsessed with grammar schools. Nor should he be distracted by the hypocrisy of Conservative Members, given that the previous Conservative Government got rid of one grammar school in three.
Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at diversity in the new academies and specialist schools, and ensure that they reach out to other schools in their areas? The city technology colleges were set up by the previous Government, but they failed to share their excellence and their mission, just as they failed to spread good teaching throughout their communities.
Mr. Blunkett: I agree with my hon. Friend. The provisions covering specialist schools specifically require that a third of the additional resources are used in work with neighbouring schools and the wider community. The original 15 technology colleges have been warmly welcomed and have sought actively to collaborate with schools and the wider community in their areas.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): If the Ripon parents had voted in favour of reorganisation, that decision would have been irrevocable, even though--because they were not consulted--they would not have known what form the reorganisation would have taken. However, the parents voted against reorganisation. Should not that decision also be irrevocable? Is it fair to schools that they should face another five years of uncertainty, and all the difficulties that that will cause for pupils, parents and teachers--and to the very head teachers whom the Secretary of State wants to fulfil a leadership role? Should not a decision reached by ballot decide a matter once and for all?
Mr. Blunkett: I take very seriously what the right hon. Gentleman says. There will be no threat to the school in the next five years. The outcome in Ripon was decisive, and people will take note of that. However, I would take his question more seriously if, under the balloting
Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Does the Secretary of State accept that if all our children are to have the opportunity to develop all the skill, talent and creativity at their disposal, we need to abolish the 11-plus and grammar schools? Unless we have the courage to do that, our youngsters will still lose out, and many of them will be written off at the grand old age of 11.
Mr. Blunkett: There are parts of the country where the traditional 11-plus continues across the authority. That causes undoubted difficulties for secondary modern schools in achieving the kind of levels that they wish for their pupils. I commend them for the work that they are doing.
One thing was absolutely certain to us in October 1995. If we were elected, we would be diverted into spending all our time dealing with a very small number of schools in a very small number of areas, rather than dealing with standards and overcoming failure. That is why we took the decision to ensure that parents had the democratic right to decide and that Ministers did not spend all their time dealing with a handful of schools.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): First, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his city academies initiative. I hope that that will open the way to cities such as Manchester having a new tradition of grammar schools that will be open to all pupils, regardless of their parents' ability to pay.
Secondly, in relation to last night's amendment in the Lords, if the right hon. Gentleman insists on using the Government's Commons majority to override that decision, will he at least take another look at the ballot regulations? Will he remove the rigged ballot question that favours those who want to abolish the grammar schools, and ensure that the question refers instead to losing grammar schools? The Government should not use a rigged, fudged question to try to con parents so that they do not know what they are voting for.
Mr. Blunkett: That is a real insult to the parents in Ripon. They seemed well aware of what they were voting on. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that they were not, he is insulting their intelligence. He says that I rigged the ballot one way, while Lord Hattersley says that I rigged it the other way. Somewhere in between lies rational common sense and a reasonable way forward.
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I very much welcome Manchester grammar school coming back into the public sector. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who represents the constituency that the school is in, has rightly pointed out that there are thousands of deprived youngsters around that school who would benefit greatly if its admissions policy enabled them to enter, rather than those living in Cheshire and beyond.
Since that grammar school proposal was finally killed, the quality of education in Milton Keynes overall has improved because teachers, the local council and the Government can concentrate on providing an excellent education for all children without the divisiveness that was forced on them by the Tory county council.