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11 Mar 2003 : Column 161—continued

Sitting Hours

29. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What assessment he has made of the impact of the House's new sitting hours on scrutiny of Government business. [101898]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): It would be premature to attempt an assessment of changes that the House introduced for the remainder of this Parliament. My own impression is that the parallel measures of modernisation have enhanced Parliament's role of

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scrutiny, especially through Question Time becoming more topical. I hope that the other measures that we introduced will command the same degree of support.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : The right hon. Gentleman has led the Modernisation Committee with considerable distinction and a great deal of commitment, and we respect him for that. However, will he accept from hon. Members, like myself, who have had considerable experience over many years, that there is a problem for a large number of Members of Parliament adequately to scrutinise legislation because of the many other things that are going on outside the Chamber? When we are squeezing the full week into two and a half days, it is difficult for Members to find time adequately to cover debates in this place—something that remains important. Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the matter again and perhaps consider holding a debate on, or a review of, the new rules and sittings before the end of the current Session?

Mr. Cook: I certainly do not accept that we have a two and a half day week. As Leader of the House, when I programme business I do so for the full four days and I expect Members to make themselves available for those full four days. Long before the hours were changed, Select Committees and Standing Committees frequently met at hours during which the House itself was sitting—normally after 4 o'clock. Committees now have the opportunity to sit earlier in the afternoon. There may be a particular problem at present, due not to the change in hours but to the large volume of legislation and the large number of Standing Committees. However, that problem will ease as the months proceed and I anticipate that, as that happens, some of the present difficulties will resolve themselves.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): Does the Leader of the House agree that the hours issue was part of the overall modernisation package, which was designed to improve scrutiny, and that some hon. Members focus on hours because they find fundamental change difficult in their own personal way of doing their jobs and working? Indeed, is it not the case that some hon. Members suggested that they could not cope with the change after only two or three weeks? May I fully endorse the view that they will need some time to become totally accustomed to the new hours and that those hours should be considered in the wider context of scrutiny, which now involves using the whole Palace of Westminster—Westminster Hall, Select Committees, Standing Committees and the Chamber—more effectively?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the very important work that is done by hon. Members in Select Committees, Standing Committees and Westminster Hall, and I personally regret that that very important work does not attract the same attention as work in the Chamber. I would add that I fully agree with my hon. Friend that the point of changing the hours was not to make life more convenient for us, but to make the Chamber more representative of those in the world outside who elect us.

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I welcome the fact that, by moving our hours earlier, we are able to set the media agenda earlier in the day. There certainly have been at least a couple of occasions in the past few months when our votes at 7 o'clock have been much more fully recorded in the next day's papers than they ever would have been if they had taken place at 10 o'clock in the evening.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): If the Leader of the House is so confident that his new hours have met with wide approval, why will he not give the

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House another opportunity to vote on them, rather than saying that they should be revisited only in the next Parliament?

Mr. Cook: I am saying that precisely because that is what Parliament itself agreed to last October and, certainly in the case of Tuesday sittings, by a very large majority indeed. [Interruption.] I am sorry—Thursdays. I have seen no evidence to suggest that, if the matter were put to the House again, there would a majority for abandoning the 7 o'clock end.

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Point of Order

12.31 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your help and advice on an issue of real significance to the House of Commons. On 3 March I asked the Secretary of State for Defence, on Question 1, whether he would seek to establish from the United States authorities which weapons of mass destruction had been provided to Iraq, so that we could assess the problems that our troops might encounter if we entered into armed conflict. The Secretary of State advised me that the US had "categorically denied" making any such items available to Iraq.

Later the same day, I gained access to a Senate committee report, written in May 1994, which set out in great deal the materials related to biological warfare that the US had provided to the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission. Those items included things such as anthrax, histoplasma, clostridium and other materials that have frightening potential. I tabled three written questions for answer on the named day of 6 March, asking for details. On that day, to my surprise, was I advised that a Minister would seek to answer my questions as soon as possible, but I still do not have the answers.

My question to you, Sir, is whether there is any time limit on the period for which Ministers can keep the House waiting for answers on important questions that have been tabled for answer on a named day. As I believe it is vital that the House should have that information before a decision is made on possible conflict, can you give me any assurance about the period that we might have to wait for information?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I understand his frustration that his questions have not received a substantive reply. The rule is that an answer to a named question must be given on the day named by the Member, but if that answer is a holding answer, there is no rule about when the eventual substantive answer should be given. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's point of order has been noted by Ministers.

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Specialist Schools (Selection by Aptitude)

12.34 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I beg to move,

First, this is not a Bill that in any way seeks to criticise the concept or purpose of the secondary specialist school—far from it, as the Government's recent decision to make specialist school designation available to all schools has been widely welcomed. The Bill is solely concerned with a relatively obscure part of the school admission arrangements, which enables certain specialist schools, and other schools that consider themselves to have a specialism, to select up to 10 per cent. of their pupils on the basis of aptitude. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 introduced the concept of testing for aptitude, the 1999 regulations described the means of implementation, and the new school admissions code of practice, published last month, provides further guidance. My Bill proposes to end the power to select by aptitude, on the grounds that it will increasingly be used as a back-door method of selection by ability.

This is a unique Government policy, and the main argument given to justify it by Ministers, officials and advisers is that the policy is rarely used. Can anyone think of a parallel? Would we, for example, defend the policy of the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools by arguing that few schools did anything about it? If selection by aptitude is a good policy, consistent with the Government's other objectives, why are all schools not strongly encouraged to use it? The silence on the issue speaks volumes. The latest available figures indicate that about 6 per cent. of specialist schools choose to select by aptitude. The figures clearly indicate, however, that the majority of schools that select are foundation schools—former grant-maintained schools—or voluntary aided schools, and those schools are their own admission authorities.

In addition, schools that select tend to have far fewer children on free school meals than the national average, and take far fewer children with statements of special needs than the national average. Although it is true that that 6 per cent. represents a comparatively small number of schools at present, when all 3,500 English secondary schools become specialist, if the figure remains at 6 per cent., that will equate to more than 200 schools. That will mean a 150 per cent. increase in the existing number of grammar schools that select explicitly on the grounds of ability.

Consequently, a deep concern exists that selection by aptitude has become, and will continue to develop, as yet another means by which schools whose intakes are already comparatively privileged will seek to reinforce their position in the local hierarchy of schools. Some schools have used, and some are still using, selection by aptitude to increase further their intake of able and well motivated pupils, thus increasing the concentration of less able and less well motivated pupils in neighbouring schools. The twin pressures imposed on head teachers by pupil-related funding and the publication of league tables make the process almost inevitable.

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Selection by aptitude will lead to a reinforcement of the local hierarchy, a widening of inequality between schools and the creation of more schools that simply cannot recruit that critical mass of able and motivated children that all schools need in order to progress. That was precisely the issue identified as one of the great problems of the English education system in the recent OECD report on secondary school performance, and it would be perverse to continue with policies that make the problem worse.

Secondly, selection by aptitude is now unnecessary because of the Government's welcome changing policy on specialist schools. The earlier rhetoric in the debate on specialism was couched in the language of specialist schools delivering better results, becoming individual centres of excellence and therefore offering greater consumer choice for parents. It was then pointed out that only schools that were already performing well could become specialist schools, that the £600,000 of additional funding probably played some part in the delivery of better results, that the Government's evidence on results was itself highly selective and disputed by some experts, and that in most parts of the country there was no increase in parental choice, only in parental preference. By definition, selection by aptitude, like all forms of selection, restricts parental choice precisely because it is the school that does the choosing.

The Government have now sensibly developed the policy in a new direction, so that specialist schools are now expected to work in collaborative networks and share their expertise with others. Specialism is seen as a means of school improvement for all schools, not as a means by which the few can gain an advantage over the many. In this framework, it becomes less important for parents to seek out a specialist school to match the alleged aptitude of the child, because not only will all schools have a distinct specialism but they will develop their expertise across the curriculum and benefit from the specialisms of neighbouring schools. As the specialism becomes a means to an end and not an end in itself, the argument for selecting pupils to attend particular schools becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Thirdly, there is the question of what exactly constitutes aptitude, how it can be measured and how it relates to ability. No one has yet has been able to provide a satisfactory definition. Previously, Ministers have equated aptitude with potential, but when they were pressed to clarify what kind of potential, the discussion always reverted to the concept of potential ability. Of course, Government policy is opposed to increasing selection by ability. The confusion between aptitude and ability, and the confusion caused by using the word "potential" as a noun rather than an adjective, are obvious.

There has been some attempt to argue that aptitude relates only to sport and the arts. The idea that some 11-year-olds have an aptitude for sport or the arts that is distinct from their general level of ability, and that they should be given special help to develop it, is superficially attractive. However, the justification for that argument always reverts to the need to identify and promote young talent and future high achievers—that is, young people with ability. Again, aptitude is used as a proxy for ability.

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Another attempt to define aptitude is contained in a recent ministerial reply that refers to

The new schools admissions code of conduct defines a pupil with aptitude as

If the overwhelming majority of pupils entering secondary school do not show a capacity to be trained or developed, or if they are not able to benefit from teaching in a specific subject, we have some serious problems. The real issue is not whether pupils can benefit from teaching, but the extent to which they can be trained and developed. Once again, this brings us back to the question of their ability.

There is also the question of how accurately aptitude can be assessed at the age of 10 or 11. I do not intend to go into the dubious practices that some schools have used to enhance their pupil intake, but that might be a useful subject for a future Adjournment debate. It has been well documented most recently in research by the London school of economics. All I I shall say now is that schools that are their own admissions authorities can operate in ways that are not altogether transparent, and aptitude testing simply provides another means of selection by ability, without even having the justification of the objectivity that most specific tests of ability will provide.

During the past three years, I have asked representatives of England's examining boards, head teachers and Ofsted officials about aptitude tests. The answer is always the same: there are no standardised tests available that satisfactorily assess aptitude without reference to ability. At a recent meeting of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, I put a question to Sir Cyril Taylor, the chair of the Specialist Schools Trust Council and adviser to eight successive Secretaries of State, and the author of the specialist schools policy. In his reply, he said:

That is exactly the point. Can anyone explain how we could test aptitude in mathematics without reference to ability, or test in music or technology? Are we seriously saying that we want a new generation of plumbers who have an aptitude for using a blowtorch but no ability to fix a leak? I want—

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