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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1099—continued

Dr. Gibson: Of course, we cannot deny that. I noticed this week in the debates on hunting, for example, that at least two and a half days were spent on the science of hunting deer, and on whether the experimental work that had been done on behaviour was bona fide. It is just as important for a politician to have an understanding of that as it is for a five-year-old, a 12-year-old or a 15-year-old. Science runs through all our lives, and we must have some confidence in the subject and not just trust the experts to tell us what we should think.

Science is based on evidence, and hands-on skills are very important in that regard. We can still go into laboratories today and see "Tony loves Cherie" scrawled on those awful brown-topped desks and remember how we spent boring afternoons watching the teacher doing the experiments and demonstrating to us how something worked, when what we wanted was to get into it ourselves—to make mistakes, perhaps, but to learn using hands-on skills. It is important to be able to do that. The Government have respected that need by providing a certain amount of money to develop the laboratories, but there are still many laboratories that turn young people off. It does not excite or engage young people to walk into a laboratory and see an old Kipps generator in a cupboard in the corner, caked in dust and chemicals, and all the other poor equipment there. Going out and taking part in field studies and seeing what happens in nature is also important. Because of the accidents that have happened, we must also address the health and safety problems involved.

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Someone once said to me that we would never get a Charles Darwin out of the current system in this country, and I fear that that is true because we do not give young people the time to engage with nature or to look at what is happening. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister does things like that, but I remember him telling the Committee that he had failed some subject in the science field dreadfully—I forget which stage he had reached. He might have been a greater scientist than he is a politician. Who knows?

We spoke to many inspiring and dedicated teachers, and there is good science going on in our country. We could really make it better, however, if we respected the technicians and the teachers, and made the young people who are enthusiastic and excited about science engage in the process—which is about the real world that we live in—of putting the science facts in, but also allowed them the facilities for gaining hands-on experience, finding out what is happening, questioning, arguing and not accepting. That is what science is all about, and we should be doing that in our schools.

4.23 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), whose scientific expertise is appreciated in all parts of the House. In opening the debate, the Minister said that the Government's policy was for every secondary school in the country to be a specialist school. I have no difficulty with specialist schools and, as I shall go on to illustrate, one of the earliest specialist schools—a technology college—was created by the previous Conservative Government in my constituency. I have concerns, however, about one aspect of the Government's policy, and that is the limited number of specialisms—even after the announcement of additional specialisms by the Secretary of State this week.

I am concerned about whether the existing specialisms are adequate for all types of school. I believe that, in one category of school, they are not. That is the category of schools with exceptionally high all-round academic ability. I am fortunate to have at least one such school in my constituency: the Judd school in Tonbridge, which is a voluntary-aided grammar school. It is undoubtedly one of the top-performing academic state secondary schools in the country. Its performance rests on all-round attainment. However, under the present categories of specialist school, there is no specialist category for all-round academic ability. The Government have placed an impossible dilemma before the Judd school. It is told that if it does not become a specialist school, it will lose out substantially—by around £150,000 next year—but if it becomes a specialist school in one of the limited categories, such as maths or languages, it will have to skew its curriculum and staffing, and will cease to have the all-round capability, at least to the same extent, that it has at the moment.

The Government need to consider the position of those state secondary schools that have high all-round academic ability, because there is no adequate specialism for them. The headmaster of the Judd school has written to me with two pertinent questions. He asks:

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I hope that the Minister will reflect on that point and see whether it is possible to create a specialist category of all-round academic attainment for such schools.

My comments on the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds relate to those parts of the country, such as mine in Kent, where we still have grammar schools. I do not regard the grammar school issue as a party-political one, because for me, it is an educational one. I recognise that in the 1960s and 1970s several Conservative authorities decided to introduce comprehensive schools. Equally, I am well aware that any number of Labour Members have given grammar schools the clearest possible personal endorsement that an individual can give and have sent their children to one. I respect that choice and, as far as I am concerned, it is not a cause for criticism of any individual who has done so.

I trust that the Government will reflect on the fact that the remaining grammar schools enjoy profound support in their communities. They have been truly tried and tested by parents in those communities. The remaining grammar schools are the survivors. They have survived attempts at abolition by local education authorities, when so many introduced comprehensive systems in the 1960s and 1970s; abolition by Government coercion under the Labour Administration of the 1970s, when Baroness Williams was Secretary of State for Education; and abolition by ballot, under the present Government. It is a striking fact that since the introduction of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, almost five years ago, sufficient signatures to precipitate a ballot have been collected in only one location—Ripon, in Yorkshire—and when it took place, two thirds of the parents voted in favour of retaining the grammar school. We should not forget that the parents whose children go to grammar schools are in a clear minority in the areas concerned. In Kent, just under one third of children go to grammar schools, with the remaining two thirds going to non-selective secondary schools. Yet parents in those areas have wholly rejected the possibility of precipitating ballots, and the House knows what the answer was in the one area in which a ballot was held.

Like the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), I should simply like to give to the House the experience in my own constituency. The town of Tonbridge has six secondary schools, of which no fewer than three are grammar schools: Tonbridge girls grammar school, the Weald of Kent girls grammar school, and the Judd school, to which I have referred. There are three non-selective secondary schools: the Hugh Christie school, the Hayesbrook school, and Hill View school.

Labour Members might think this a classic example of children who do not go to grammar schools suffering a lesser education than they should achieve. However, the Hugh Christie school, because of its performance, was one of the first to be singled out for technology status. That was achieved in 1994, under the previous Conservative Government. The current Government have singled out Hill View school by awarding it arts college status as a specialist school. They have also singled out the Hayesbrook school by awarding it sports college status. Even more significantly, all three of the non-selective secondary schools to which I have referred were deemed sufficiently good—with a sufficiently good academic performance—to receive approved sixth forms from the previous Conservative Government.

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So notwithstanding the existence of three grammar schools, under two different Governments all three non-selective secondary schools in the Tonbridge community have achieved the status of specialist schools, and of schools with approved sixth forms.

Mr. Brady: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir John Stanley: Very briefly.

Mr. Brady: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so close to the end of his remarks. I am anxious that he be aware that what he says applies not only to secondary schools in his constituency. A written answer that I received from the Minister just the other day shows that of the 180 remaining secondary modern schools—or high schools—in the country, a quarter are achieving better results than the average result for all-ability comprehensive schools.

Sir John Stanley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that—what I am saying does indeed have a very much wider application.

I hope that the Secretary of State, notwithstanding the somewhat hostile remarks that he made about grammar schools since taking his post, will reflect closely on the fact that the remaining grammar schools enjoy huge, if not overwhelming, parental support in the areas in which they still exist. They are tried and tested, and they produce outstanding educational performance alongside non-selective secondary schools, which also do extraordinarily well by their own children. I put it to the Government that simply to ideologically remove the remaining grammar schools would be an act of sheer educational vandalism.

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