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House of Commons

Thursday 9 January 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Grammar Schools

1. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills how many grammar schools exist in England and Wales; and what the number was a year ago. [89206]

9. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what plans he has for reviewing standards in LEA areas with selective secondary education systems. [89215]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): There are 164 maintained grammar schools in England—the same number as one year ago. Wales has none.We continue to look at ways to support an increase in standards in schools in all local education authorities. That is an important matter for local education authorities to consider in their own local circumstances, and reach conclusions on how standards can best be improved. The House may be interested to know that a couple of months ago I asked Ofsted to send me a paper on the educational standards in the local education authority of Kent. I am considering that paper now.

Sir Teddy Taylor : Is the Secretary of State aware that whereas the grammar schools felt more secure than for many years as a result of the policy initiatives of his predecessor, they are just a little worried that he might not be quite so positive about the matter? Before he contemplates changes, would he at least accept that grammar schools provide a unique opportunity for able children from working-class homes? Will he pay a visit to Southend on Sea, where our four grammar schools were in the top 100 achievers in the whole of England and Wales in the A-level results, and where, despite this, we find that the other schools performed extremely well?

Mr. Clarke: I know that this has been a matter of concern to the hon. Gentleman for some time. The assurance that I can give him is that my fundamental focus, and that of the Government, is on pursuing the best possible educational standards in every part of the

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country for every pupil in every way that they operate. That is the approach that we will follow. Grammar schools can be confident that there will be no ideological attack from me or my party on these matters. They can also be confident that we will look carefully at the educational standards for the whole population in each of the areas that they serve.

Dr. Ladyman: I was extremely encouraged, both by my right hon. Friend's answer today and by his comments to the Select Committee. Does he agree that we must judge the matter on the facts? The facts as gathered by people such as Professor Jesson are that children in comprehensive schools do significantly better than their cohorts in grammar schools, and that in areas such as Kent, which is exclusively selective, we have a far higher proportion of failing schools than we should have. Is it not right that if we are to drive up standards, we must drive out selection?

Mr. Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue is standards and an assessment of standards based on the facts. As my hon. Friend suggests, I have had an opportunity to examine the research commissioned by him from Professor Jesson. I was interested that it stated that grammar schools in Kent and Medway do less well and are performing at lower levels than other grammar schools in the country, which is in itself an interesting point. I was interested, too, that the last comparison made by my Department between the results of grammar and comprehensive schools in 1999 showed that 100 per cent. of pupils in the top 25 per cent. of comprehensive schools ability range achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 96.4 per cent. achieving that at grammar schools. The fundamental point that I want to make, and which I sought to make before the Select Committee, is that the judgment must be based on educational standards for everybody, and it must be based on the facts and the factual assessment of those standards.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Who was it who coined the phrase Xsink schools" and in what context?

Mr. Clarke: I have no idea. I remember the phrase from the period in office of the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a respected supporter. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shouts XAlastair Campbell" across the Chamber. I am open to correction by the hon. Gentleman at all times, but I am pretty sure that Mr. Campbell never used the phrase Xsink schools", and that the phrase was generated during the period of the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a supporter.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Is my right hon. Friend aware of one of the problems of the selective system that has been highlighted by the heads of the 21 secondary modern schools in Buckinghamshire—notably, the differential funding, which means that they are in deficit, while the grammar schools have a #2 million surplus? Is he concerned about the effect that that is having on the standard of

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education provided for disadvantaged children, who are over-represented in those schools, particularly ethnic minority pupils?

Mr. Clarke: I am aware that there are issues of funding between schools. That is principally a matter for the local education authority concerned, but I return to the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman): in Buckinghamshire, as in Kent, the judgment must be made on the basis of educational standards for all pupils in the county, and on the basis of factual assessments of that, during which comparisons of the type that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) makes are worthy of consideration.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Does the Secretary of State accept that Labour Members frequently seem to be stuck in a time warp when they start to speak about academic selection? Whatever the failings of secondary moderns in the 1950s and 1960s, today's secondary modern high schools are achieving results only slightly below those of all-ability comprehensives. In English and maths, they are better than a third of comprehensive schools. At GCSE, they are better than a quarter of comprehensive schools. His own Department has designated 11 secondary moderns as beacon schools and 36 as specialist schools. Is it not time that Ministers joined us in celebrating the achievements of secondary moderns and grammar schools instead of knocking them?

Mr. Clarke: I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating the genuine educational achievement of schools of all types. There are outstanding secondary modern schools, grammar schools, comprehensive schools and private schools. In each of those categories, however, there are also schools that are less than outstanding and which need serious work. That is why I focus, as will my Government throughout, on the issue of standards for everybody—[Interruption.] Lèse majesté is a failing of which I am, I hope, not often guilty, Mr. Speaker, but I am on this occasion and I apologise to you for it. The Government whom I am proud to serve—[Laughter.] I believe that it is important to restore the concept of service following the approach taken by the previous Government on these matters. The Government whom I serve will focus on educational standards in all schools, celebrate high-quality schools of all types and seek to raise the standards of lower-performing schools of all types. That will be our approach throughout. We will not take the sort of ideological, backward-looking approach that characterises the Conservative party.

Tuition Fees

2. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what assessment he has made of the effect of up-front tuition fees on access to higher education. [89207]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): Since means-tested contributions to tuition fees were introduced in 1998, numbers in higher education have increased and there has been no

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fall in the proportion of those entering it from the bottom three social classes. We will shortly publish our review of higher education, which I can assure my hon. Friend will reflect our continued commitment to widening access. I can confirm that, as the Prime Minister has already told the House, there will be no massive increase in up-front tuition fees.

Mrs. Campbell : I am very pleased with that reply, but will my right hon. Friend also assess in the review process the effect of differential tuition fees on access, even if they are paid back as deferred loans or a graduate tax, as that is a source of worry to me?

Mr. Clarke: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks. We are considering the matter extremely carefully. I repeat what I said a moment ago: our commitment to access will be a central aspect of the review, which I hope to announce shortly.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Is it not now high time for the Secretary of State to acknowledge the clear implications of a written answer given to me only on Tuesday this week by the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education? It showed a doubling in the percentage of participation by students from unskilled families in the six Conservative years from 1991 to 1997, but that that process came completely to a stop after the imposition of tuition fees by the Labour Government. Does he not understand that his arbitrary 50 per cent. target for total participation by young people in higher education is logically and practically a totally different matter from widening opportunity for all those who are qualified and suitable to attend our universities? He needs rigorously to keep those issues apart.

Mr. Clarke: It disappoints me, but I have to agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. Throughout the important discussion on these matters, I have distinguished between the very important issue of the proportion of the age group that goes into higher education, which is a very significant consideration and is now about 43 per cent. of the population, and the balance in that intake of people from different social classes. Those are different questions and both are very important. On the first, which he raised first, I believe that the 50 per cent. target is very important indeed. Looking at our competitor countries, we see that it is exceptionally important that people are educated to such a level. It is also important, however, carefully to consider the appropriate qualifications and degrees to be offered to the 50 per cent. who are coming through. That is what my review will do.

On the second question, the difference between the chances of access to higher education of the higher and lower social classes is a public disgrace. The previous Conservative Government, in which the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) was a Minister, must bear responsibility for that. However, I shall be frank and

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admit that our Government must bear responsibility for our period in office. When I make my statement on those matters, I shall present measures to tackle them.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): What disadvantages does my right hon. Friend personally perceive in allowing different universities to charge students different top-up or tuition fees?

Mr. Clarke: There are advantages and disadvantages to that policy, as with other policies. If my hon. Friend wants me to list the disadvantages, the first is the overall amount of money and the impact on access about which my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) asked. The second is the courses that would attract higher fees in the case of differential fees, and the implications for more expensive and cheaper courses.

However, there are also important advantages. They include universities' ability to raise more resources, of which they are desperately short, and to develop a better contractual relationship with people who are coming to them. Major questions about the quality of teaching for many university students need to be raised.

There are therefore great advantages and disadvantages. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) has been an active participant in the debate, and I hope that he, like me, will examine both the pros and cons.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): Given that the Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in the National Assembly have condemned top-up fees as socially divisive, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he will not introduce any changes to the system of financing higher education in Wales without the consent of the National Assembly?

Mr. Clarke: I will not confirm that because a discussion is taking place between all my colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Wales and colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales. I shall not say to any participant in the debate, whether a political party such as the hon. Gentleman's or an organisation, that there is a veto on change. I shall try to achieve consent and agreement about positive changes to the university and higher education system in both Wales and England.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have made substantial progress in moving towards the 50 per cent. target for participation of those under 30? There have been tremendous changes, and that is a great success. We must now switch to ensuring a much more socially diverse entry.

Does my right hon. Friend also agree that we should not lose sight of the fact that we want high quality higher education that delivers for all those who have the potential to benefit? We must not forget that that must be financed from somewhere.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend has put his finger on the point. First, we must tackle standards. Secondly, the

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quality and nature of the degree qualifications are important to the student, employers and the future. Different issues arise if we envisage 50 per cent. as opposed to 15 per cent. or 20 per cent. of the population entering higher education. They must be properly tackled. Thirdly, those who claim that we should simply forget about expanding higher education are wrong. I believe that we must do that. Those who claim that we should expand higher education but ensure that it properly serves our society and economy are right. I hope that we will follow that approach.

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