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Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 23 May 2000


[Mr. John Butterfill in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 98

Grammar schools: retention of selective admission arrangements

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

10.30 am

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 302.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): I welcome you, Mr. Butterfill, to the Chair. We look forward to working with you. You will find the Committee, certainly those hon. Members on the Government Benches, full of cricketing metaphors. You will be lucky not to hear someone refer to England's gigantic victory over Zimbabwe--albeit that it was aided by a former Zimbabwe batsman, Mr. Graham Hick. However, it is for the other side to discuss cricket; we are here to discuss learning and skills. We shall do so even more diligently, Mr. Butterfill, under your chairmanship.

In seeking that clause 98 should not stand part of the Bill, we wish to reinstate sections 105 to 108 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. In so doing, we shall restore the Government's manifesto commitment that parents, not local authorities or Ministers, should decide whether grammar schools are to keep their selective admission arrangements.

Clause 98, which was introduced by Baroness Blatch in another place, takes that power away from parents and places it back in the hands of local authorities. The details of the petition and ballot process were strenuously debated during the passage through Parliament of the 1998 Act, and we did not expect to have a rerun of the debate less than two years later, in a Bill that has nothing to do with grammar schools or school admissions.

We have made our position on selection clear time and again. We do not support selection by ability at the age of 11, and we do not wish to see it extended. The policy on petitions and ballots on the future of selective admission to the remaining 164 grammar schools was agreed at the Labour party conference in 1995 and publicised in the document "Diversity and Excellence" before the general election.

We continue to believe that parents, rather than Ministers or local government officials, are best placed to decide whether those 164 grammar schools should continue to select their pupils by ability, which is why I seek to reinstate the procedures that allow parents to do just that. During the 25 years before the 1998 Act became law, the number of grammar schools fell from 809 to 166. Why, during its 18 years in government, did the Conservative party do nothing to stop them closing? It was a Conservative Government who first gave parents the right to hold a ballot on whether a school should opt out of the local education authority and become grant-maintained. Why does it now, in opposition, want to deny parents the right to ballot on the future of selective admission?

In March, parents in Ripon voted in favour of retaining selection by ability to the town's only grammar school. Some people have argued that the result of that first ballot should be taken as an indication that parents in all areas that have a grammar school want to keep selective admission. They say that we should not reinstate the ballot provisions. That is nonsense. Accepting that argument would mean letting Ripon parents vote for all parents, which is an odd proposition.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): The Minister is also aware that major concerns have been expressed locally about the Ripon ballot, particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), whose constituency is nearby. Given the nature of the people who took part, that ballot is not typical of what other parts of the country might decide. I hope that the Minister takes seriously the representations that have been made to the Department for Education and Employment about how people were selected for the written ballot, which seems exceptional.

Mr. Wicks: I shall comment on the possibility of a future ballot in a few minutes.

I cannot put the argument better than my noble Friend, Baroness Blackstone, who on Report in another place said:

    By analogy, it would be like the result of a by-election determining the governance of the country as a whole.--[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 1484.]

I am sure, following the Romsey by-election, that the Conservative Party would not want that. Indeed. I am not sure we would either.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): I am unusual. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I thank hon. Members. The by-election that resulted in my entry into the Commons reduced the majority of the then Labour Government to one, so that by-election did change events. A pact was made with the Liberal Democrats., who can speak for themselves, but that by-election changed the balance of power in the House.

Mr. Chairman: Order. I hope that the Minister will not be tempted to follow that line of discussion. We are here to discuss the Bill and not the outcome of by-elections.

Mr. Wicks: Absolutely. and it would take more than one fluke by-election result to unseat the Government.

We are aware that petitions have been circulating in another eight areas during the school year. A number are within wholly selective authorities where either all or almost all children take selection tests and go either to grammar schools or, for those that do not pass, the alternative. Parents in these areas may take a different view from that of parents in North Yorkshire, where only 5 per cent. of children attend grammar schools and a wider range of alternatives exists.

The number of petitions circulating, the degree of interest and the 75 per cent. turnout in the Ripon ballot show that parents want the opportunity to express their opinions. They should be able to do so.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Can the Minister enlighten the Committee as to how many of the other petitions are expected to trigger a ballot before the end of the school term?

Mr. Wicks: No, I cannot. It will depend on the number of petitioners. I make no judgment as to whether it will be many, a few, or none, at all. Some interest in certain locations has been shown in the possibility of a ballot, but we shall have to wait and see whether those ballots come about.

We hear arguments from the Opposition that petitions and ballots are a threat to some of the country's best schools, and that our policy on selection cannot be reconciled with our pledge to raise standards. I am not persuaded by such arguments. Grammar schools obtain excellent results, but they should because they accept only the most able students. We recently published some telling statistics in response to a parliamentary question tabled, interestingly enough, by the noble Baroness Blatch. They showed that the average performance of the top 25 per cent. of pupils in maintained comprehensive schools is comparable with that of pupils at grammar schools, who make up roughly the top 25 per cent. of the ability range in selected areas. I will make that data available. Also, recent independent research suggests that pupils between the ages of 14 and 16 in mainly comprehensive areas make more progress than those in selective areas.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I am listening to the Minister carefully as he advances anti-grammar school material. Will he tell us whether he himself is in favour of grammar schools?

Mr. Wicks: The burden of my argument--

Mr. Clappison: Ah!

Mr. Wicks: The hon. Gentleman cannot say "Ah" when I have merely said that [Laughter.] The burden of my argument is that he and I may hold views on the issue, but it is the parents' views that count. That is our important argument and is the reason why we want to give parents the final say. The hon. Member for Hertsmere does not want parents to have the final say. My children were happy at the local comprehensive school.

Mr. Brady: The Minister says that he believes that parents should have the final say. Why does he not believe that the parents of children attending stand-alone grammar schools should have a say in a ballot?

Mr. Wicks: We discussed on other occasions the way in which elections would be held. I know that views differ about the fairness of the procedure. We have aimed for a balance. I know that not everyone is happy with it, although sometimes the fact that both sides of an argument are not happy means that a reasonable balance somewhere in the middle has been reached.

The Government had three choices. We could have kept to ourselves the power to close grammar schools. The previous Government did that, and with our majority we would, I suspect, have got such a measure through Parliament. However, that would have imposed the same solution on everyone and denied parental choice. We could have done what the Liberal Democrats wanted us to do and handed power to local education authorities, but that would also have denied parental choice. Instead, we chose to let parents decide.

There are two reasons for placing the future of selection by ability for the 164 remaining grammar schools in the hands of parents. First, it gives parents a choice about an issue on which they feel strongly. Secondly, it allows us to concentrate on our main agenda of raising standards in all schools. Many of us want to focus on all the schools that our children attend, rather than to be drawn back in history into the debate about selection. That debate is best resolved by parents locally.

As my noble Friend Baroness Blackstone explained in the debate in another place, we are tackling poor performance in a variety of ways in primary and secondary schools. We are maintaining our stance on standards and finding the resources to improve them for the benefit of all children. We have been told that our policy on selection removes opportunities from bright and gifted children, but we have a range of policies to promote diversity in schools and cater for pupils' different needs, whatever their ability.

We are increasing the number of specialist schools that provide opportunities for children with particular interests in the arts, languages, sport and technology to play to their strengths. Specialist schools are working. On average, their examination performance in 1999 improved even more than that of other schools. Specialist schools are also popular. By September 2000 there will be specialist schools in 86 per cent. of local education authorities. We are also encouraging setting, which takes account of the different abilities of pupils in different subjects. In addition, we are working on a national strategy for improving the education of gifted and talented pupils. Our excellence in cities programme includes initiatives for that group.

We chose to put the power to decide the future of selective admissions in the hands of parents whose children would be affected and we want that power to be reinstated. That is why I shall encourage my hon. Friends and, I hope, Liberal Democrat Members, to join me in opposing the motion that clause 98 should stand part of the Bill.


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