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Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 11--Grammar schools: retention of selective admission arrangements--

( ) In the School Standards and Framework Act 1998
(a) in section 104 (designation of grammar schools), omit subsection (4)
(b) omit sections 105 to 108 (procedure for ballots to determine retention or discontinuance of selective admission arrangements) and
(c) in section 109 (proposals by governing body to and selective admission arrangements) omit subsections (3)(b) and (4).'.

Dr. Ladyman: It is probably appropriate for me to begin by declaring an interest. I live in my constituency, I am a dad and I raise my family in my constituency. What I believe is best for my children I also want to see delivered to all my constituents' children. At the moment, my constituents do not have the best form of secondary

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education system and I very much want to see it improved for them. They should be able to engage in debate about our secondary education system and to have a vote on whether it should continue in its current form.

The purpose of the new clause is simply this. In local education authorities in which there is nothing apart from a selective system of secondary education and when there has not previously been a ballot on the selective education policy of the local education authority, it should be necessary only to get 1 per cent. of eligible parents to sign a petition in order to have a ballot. That would make it practicable to move towards a ballot on a selective education system in areas such as Kent.

I shall provide some background to the debate for hon. Members who are not familiar with Kent. There are no comprehensive schools in Kent. We have only grammar schools and high schools. Selection for grammar schools is on the basis of the 11-plus which, in Kent, is called the Kent test. Twenty-four per cent. of children go to grammar schools, and the remaining children go to what are euphemistically called high schools. One or two schools aspire to offer a comprehensive system of education. A laudable effort, for example, is made by the Catholic Church, which tries to encourage Catholic pupils of all abilities to go to the few dedicated Catholic secondary schools. In an area in which 24 per cent. of pupils are selected at age 11 to go to grammar schools, I would argue that, in effect, it is impossible, for any school to offer a truly comprehensive system of education. The size and scale of the selection distorts the process so completely that, practically and economically, it is impossible for a school that does not have access to the 24 per cent. of brightest pupils to provide services to bright pupils.

In my constituency, and throughout my county, parents who do not believe in the 11-plus may choose for their children not to sit the test. If they make that choice, their children will not go to a comprehensive school, as there are none, but to a secondary modern school. Whatever one calls such schools they are not, as Kent county council tries to describe them, wide ability schools. They are only wide ability in so far as they serve the 76 per cent. of children who do not go to grammar school. They are secondary modern schools. Throughout Kent, it is as if the education system has been preserved in aspic since the early 1960s--as if no one has ever even thought of introducing comprehensive education.

There is no parental choice--none whatsoever. I shall go further on that subject, as part of painting the background to my amendment. Selection is not just about the 11-plus. As a result of the distorted selective education system in Kent, children are selected, first of all, according to wealth. If one is rich enough, one's children go to one of the public schools that serve the county. Children are then selected according to academic ability at 11. If they fail to get into a grammar school on that test, they are selected by postcode and, if they are lucky enough to live in a middle-class area, they go to a middle-class secondary modern provided in the area.

Some council estates in my constituency rank among the poorest in the United Kingdom, and have male unemployment approaching 60 per cent. If children happen to live in one of those poorer parts of the community, they go to a secondary modern which, effectively, is a sink school. The day that a child arrives at that school he or she will find that at least 70 per cent.

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of their peers arriving with them have special needs. Is it any surprise that that school then delivers poor statistics in the GCSE league tables? Sometimes, those schools are close to the bottom--indeed, sometimes even at the bottom--of the league tables, which reinforces the impression of their failure. Even though teachers in those schools are highly motivated, may add huge value to those children and be doing their very best for those kids, parents get the impression that those schools are at the bottom of the ladder, so they try to avoid them.

One of the biggest piles of constituency casework that I get is from all the parents who find that their child has been allocated one of those sink schools, even though they did not include it on their list of preferences as a school that they wished their child to attend. Someone, however, has to go to that school, and parents' first recourse on receiving the letter informing them of that is to contact their Member of Parliament to see whether there is any way of getting out of it. I am afraid that there is not, and I have to sit and explain to parents the realities of living with a system in which selective education distorts the life and educational prospects of all our children.

Mr. Brady: I am following the hon. Gentleman's speech with interest. Is it not the case that, if those schools were neighbourhood comprehensives, the same selection by postcode would happen? A neighbourhood comprehensive serving a more affluent area will tend to draw its pupils from that area, whereas one serving one of the least prosperous areas will tend to draw its pupils from that area.

Dr. Ladyman: Of course there are distortions in any education system. There are more distortions in the system than that of intellectual ability. However, if those schools were true comprehensives, had a full range of ability and a full wide syllabus for all their children, at least they would have the opportunity to raise their standards and their pupils would have aspirations higher than getting through their few years of secondary education. They would have the aspiration of trying to go on to further and higher education which, in many cases, they do not have in the distorted system that we must work with today.

One head teacher told me that the system is evil. He did not say that it is slightly less good than the other system or marginally inefficient, or that it is worth having a debate about changing it. He called the selective education system in Kent evil. He is not an apologist for the Labour Government. Indeed, this particular head teacher is one of the biggest pains in my backside. He frequently objects to funding policies, to the Secretary of State's comments and to Government policies on a range of issues. He was a pioneer of the grant-maintained system and took his school to that status when it was an option. He is not an apologist for the Labour Government, but he calls the system evil. I agree with him. I have not spoken to any head teacher of any high school in my constituency who believes that Kent's selective education system is appropriate. One or two are worried about the disruption that would follow a change in the system, but none agree fundamentally with the system.

I can tell the House that, although they will not say it in public, support for the selective system is not unanimous even among the head teachers of the grammar schools, of which there are four in my constituency. The Kent Association of All-Ability Secondary Heads

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includes 60 secondary school head teachers who are prepared to say publicly that the system in Kent needs to be changed.

6 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The hon. Gentleman says that a head teacher in Kent has described the education system as evil. If parents support that view, why was the local authority elected on a policy of not changing the system?

Dr. Ladyman: Frankly, it was not. We have not engaged in that debate in any depth or with any feeling. I believe that if we were to have that debate and provide the people of Kent with the facts and the figures, the local authority would be instructed to change the education system.

I am prepared to put that to the test because my new clause does not ask the Government to take away parents' right to choose. I fought the general election on a policy of leaving the choice to parents. My new clause seeks only to make it a practical possibility for parents in my constituency to make that choice. I have said publicly that when we have that debate, I will not play a politician's role in it; I will leave it to parents. I will of course have a voice as a parent, but I will stay out of the debate if other politicians do the same and leave it to parents to make their choice on objective grounds.

Mr. Bercow: In developing his argument, will the hon. Gentleman concede that he is motivated, at least in part, by the risible failure of Mr. Martin Frey and his colleagues in Kent, who in this academic year have secured only 7,000 of the 45,000 signatures that they require to trigger a ballot, which has caused them to postpone the petition, although sadly not to cancel it?

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