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5. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): What recent assessment she has made of the performance at GCSE of (a) pupils at grammar schools and (b) their equivalent intellectual cohort in comprehensive schools. [31404]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): The Department has not made a recent assessment. An assessment carried out two years ago showed a modest advantage to comprehensive schools.

Dr. Ladyman: I have to confess that I am baffled. As my hon. Friend said, the assessment done by the Department a couple of years ago showed an advantage to comprehensive schools. A wide range of academic research now shows a consistent pattern of comprehensive education out-performing selective education. When a clear, consistent pattern illustrates that selective education is failing our children, why will the Government not face up to their responsibility to deal with those local education authorities that are entirely selective? Will the Minister again consider my suggestion, which is now supported by people campaigning for as well as against grammar schools, that an independent inquiry be held into the corrosive effects of selective education?

Mr. Timms: The academic debate on this subject still rages. The Government's position is that we do not favour selection by ability at the age of 11; there will be no new grammar schools under this Government. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about these arrangements, particularly in Kent. In the White Paper, we set the target that by 2004 at least 20 per cent. of pupils in every school should achieve five good GCSEs, rising to 25 per cent. by 2006. A total of 372 schools did not achieve the 25 per cent. target last summer; 28 of those were in Kent. Clearly, extensive work will need to be done with those schools in Kent to achieve the targets, with support from my Department. That is where I urge my hon. Friend and the many others who are concerned about these issues to focus their attention.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Are five good GCSE grades today the equivalent to five GCE O-levels

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of grade C and above in the past? To what extent has improvement in overall examination results been assessed as due to grade inflation over the years?

Mr. Timms: That is certainly not the explanation. We have careful, thorough quality control procedures in place to ensure that standards are maintained. There is indeed broad comparability between the levels to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Teachers, schools and pupils have worked very hard, and that is the reason that we have hit the target of at least 50 per cent. of our young people getting five good GCSEs a year ahead of our deadline. That is down to the hard work and success of schools.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's reaffirmation of the Government's opposition to selection by ability at the age of 11. But, in view of the endemic divisiveness, administrative chaos and waste of potential that are inherent in all the selective systems—let us remember that they exist in almost a quarter of our local authorities—is there not now an overwhelming argument for a national inquiry into the impact of selection on those children who are not selected?

Mr. Timms: Our priorities should be clearly focused on raising standards across the entire secondary system. It is clear from the exchange that we have just had that we are succeeding in that. In the case of existing grammar schools, we believe that parents should be able to determine locally whether the arrangements should continue.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): The Minister seems somewhat confused. On one side, he says that he wants standards raised, whereas, on the other, he ignores the way in which standards can be raised. It was a pleasure to see the Secretary of State, Ministers and most Labour Members, including the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), joining us in the Lobby last night and voting to defend grammar schools. Perhaps I can help the Minister with his research. Has he not seen the National Foundation for Educational Research survey on the impact of selection on pupil performance? It says that

That is very clear. Will the Minister admit to the hon. Member for South Thanet, once and for all, that he is wrong that selective education is a "corrosive evil"? It is not; it is one way to raise standards for huge numbers of pupils across the country. Will the Minister accept that, and will he defend grammar schools?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Lady is a little confused. The votes last night were about faith schools, not grammar schools. The assessment made a couple of years ago indicated an advantage to comprehensive schools, but I am aware that the debate rages. She should support comprehensive schools and encourage rising standards across the entire secondary system, as we are doing. The evidence is clear that we are succeeding.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): Is it not the case that numerous surveys have proved that children do not perform better in grammar schools? Is that not the fundamental question that we must face? Does not the

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Conservative party's obsessive interest in pursuing selective education fail to take account of the number of children who would lose out through a selective system because they would go to second-class and lower-quality schools?

Mr. Timms: Let me draw my hon. Friend's attention to the assessment made a couple of years ago. Research on all 15-year-olds in grammar schools in a particular area found that 96.4 per cent. of those youngsters achieved five good GCSEs. A second group included the top 25 per cent. of 15-year-olds in comprehensives, and 100 per cent. achieved five good GCSE grades.

School Autonomy

6. Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): If her Department will consult on regulations to give successful schools greater autonomy. [31405]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): Yes, we shall. I anticipate that the consultation will take place later this year. We set out our thinking in a policy statement that was provided to members of the Education Bill Standing Committee and placed in the Library of the House.

Richard Younger-Ross: I thank the Minister for his response. If greater autonomy is seen to be good, will it not benefit all schools? Are not struggling schools often those that require greater flexibility? Will he assure the House that there will be greater flexibility and less Government interference?

Mr. Timms: There certainly will be greater autonomy as a result of the measures agreed by the House when the Education Bill was considered on Report yesterday. We are developing our policy of intervening in inverse proportion to success. When a school is successful in terms of its achievement at assessment and in its leadership, we want to increase the autonomy available to it, because we can be confident that it will use that extra freedom to raise standards.

What we want, and what the Bill will make possible, is for our best schools to lead the next wave of education reform. Of course, under the separate power to innovate, which is also in the Bill, it will be possible for other schools to make proposals to help them raise standards. However, they will not have the same automatic entitlement that is available to our best schools, for the reasons that I have explained.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I served in Committee on the Education Bill and was pleased to support it. As my hon. Friend knows, specialist schools are also part of innovation in our children's education. Will he consider the regulations on funding, because unfortunately Rossington high school, which is seeking specialist school status, has been turned down, not because of its bid but because, in a coal-mining area, we do not have the companies on our doorstep to fund it? The parish council has agreed to put some money in, but the regulations prevent it. Will he look into that?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the valuable contribution of specialist schools in raising

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standards. I understand the concerns about sponsorship. That is why we support the Technology Colleges Trust in working with schools to help them raise the sponsorship that they need.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is the Minister aware that there is great rejoicing in King's Lynn over news that Park high school is to receive specialist technology status? If he comes to that school, he will be very welcome indeed, and they may even unveil a picture of him in the assembly hall. However, is he aware that St. Clement's high school has had its bid turned down for the third time, even though in 2000 people from the school were invited to No. 10 because it was one of the most improving schools in the country? If he goes to that school, they will probably burn an effigy of him. Will he come up to west Norfolk and visit the two schools in the near future?

Mr. Timms: I was aware of the rejoicing in King's Lynn, because the hon. Gentleman told me about it. There will be rejoicing in all the nearly 150 schools that gained specialist status in this round. Schools have to go through a very rigorous process to attain specialist status, and many have to apply two, three or more times before succeeding, but the process is a very valuable one in helping them to raise their standards and develop strong plans for future improvement. I think that, on reflection, the hon Gentleman would support that.

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