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3.45 pm

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Would he go further and advocate getting rid of the grammar school system in places such as Kent and Buckinghamshire? He has just described the system as socially divisive. If it is socially divisive in one place, surely it is in another.

Mr. Gibb: The answer to that question is no—

Matthew Taylor: Why?

Mr. Gibb: I will come to that in a moment.

We believe that we can ensure that academically able children receive a grammar school-type education within the campus of a comprehensive school. To do that, however, we need comprehensive setting, and most comprehensive schools are far from being in that position at the moment. However, teachers and head teachers are far more in favour of that approach than of the upheaval implicit in any return to wholesale selection.

To deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), we will protect and safeguard the existing grammar schools and schools that have partial selection. It would be a criminal act to destroy schools that are providing first-class education to thousands of youngsters in this country. That is why we oppose the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and his colleagues, which propose the end of selection by 2010 unless ballots are held in the areas in which grammar schools exist. I believe that any such ballots would come out in favour of retaining the grammar
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schools, because they are enormously popular in the areas that have them, even among parents whose children do not attend them.

Mr. Willis: I am sure that Mr. Woodhead, who is listening to this debate, has now abandoned his support of the Tory party. That cannot be a bad thing. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are talking not only about selection by ability in the 160 or so remaining grammar schools, but about the 10 per cent. selection by aptitude that exists in some schools? As he knows, we have been debating this matter for many years. Does he advocate getting rid of that arrangement, given that all the schools in the brave new Conservative world would have setting for academic subjects?

Mr. Gibb: Chris Woodhead is a friend of mine, and we discuss these issues at great length. I am sure that he will retain his support for this party.

On the hon. Gentleman’s question about the 10 per cent. selection, that arrangement is designed to achieve something different, namely to create an ethos in a specialist school. We are in favour of schools being able to establish an ethos, in relation to music, languages, maths, computing or whatever. We are therefore in favour of retaining the 10 per cent. selection on that basis.

To return to my point about the amendment on grammar schools tabled by the hon. Member for Bury, North, I believe that any ballots to retain those schools would be won, but why should the schools have to go through such a time-consuming and distracting process just to satisfy the ideological yearnings of a few Labour MPs?

Our amendments Nos. 103 and 104 seek to restore to the Bill its original White Paper vision by deleting the change proposed in clause 37(4):

The starting point of the whole saga of the admissions code is section 84 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which states:

It goes on, in a very non-prescriptive way, to say:

Subsection (3) of that section contains the famous phrase:

LEAs and governing bodies—

Clause 37 of the Bill does two key things. First, it replaces the phrase

with the far more prescriptive words

as the Secretary of State thinks fit. It also replaces the looser phrase “to have regard to” with the far more authoritarian wording

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As everyone knows, clause 37 was introduced into the Bill as a result of pressure from the Labour rebels, and following the Secretary of State’s letter of 6 February to the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee. In that letter, she said:

She then said,

On the first of those assertions, I looked in vain in the White Paper for a reference to the code having real force. The nearest I could find was at paragraph 3.22, which states;

Of course, in all their radio, television and newspaper interviews in the period between the publication of the White Paper in October last year and the concession letter of 6 February this year, the Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State categorically ruled out giving the code of practice any more compulsion than it already had. As the Prime Minister said at his press conference on 23 January:

The second slightly misleading statement in the letter of 6 February is that the change of heart was prompted by recent legal judgments that may have weakened the perceived force of the code. The implication is that those legal judgments occurred after the publication of the White Paper in 2005, hence the need for a last-minute change of mind. The case of the London Oratory school was decided on 17 December 2004, some 10 months before the publication of the White Paper. The truth is that it is simply an unnecessary concession made for internal Labour party management reasons and has nothing to do with what the Prime Minister or the then Secretary of State thought, in their best judgment, was in the best interests of the education system.

We believe that clause 37 is far too prescriptive and that circumstances not envisaged by the drafters of the code might require more flexibility. For instance, it should be permissible for a school to refuse admission to a child whose parents refuse to sign a home-school agreement. We agree with the White Paper at paragraph 3.25, which states:

That should be the focus of our attention rather than the over-obsession with admission arrangements.

I also agree with the Prime Minister, who was absolutely right when he said on 24 October:

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The focus of an incoming Conservative Government will be to raise standards in all our schools so that children of all backgrounds will have a greater opportunity to attend a good school.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has talked about time scales and changes of mind, but I seem to recall that the Conservative party changed its mind on selection by ability in a remarkably short space of time. Was that for internal Conservative party reasons or external electoral reasons?

Mr. Gibb: No, it is genuinely based on the belief that if we set flexibly but comprehensively—not rigidly—within a school, all the upheaval involved in returning to selection would not be necessary. We need to make sure that many of our comprehensive schools have an enhanced and accelerated curriculum that stretches the brightest children. In too many comprehensive schools, that is not happening. We are concerned about standards in schools, and we think that the best approach is universal setting in our comprehensive schools.

I believe that parents want concentration on standards in our schools. They want more good schools and they want their local school to be a good school. That, rather than developing ever more complex and prescriptive admission arrangements designed to allocate a dwindling number of good school places, will be our focus. That is why we will move amendment No. 104 at the appropriate moment, and I hope that it will have the support of the whole House.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I shall speak to the group of amendments tabled by myself, but may I say first that I agreed completely with many aspects of what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) said? He provided a powerful critique of selective admissions systems, which will also underpin my own argument in support of new clause 39. I am therefore extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making those points.

Today’s debate, furthermore, could not have taken place without the Conservative party’s dramatic switch of policy over selection earlier this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) asked why that happened, and it may well have been due to the authoritative YouGov poll published in The Daily Telegraph last December, which showed that only 20 per cent. of parents supported selective admissions policies to secondary schools. That amounts to focus-group policy making with vengeance, but I am delighted that the Conservatives have listened to the focus group that The Daily Telegraph offered them.

I shall speak mainly to new clause 39 and briefly to new clauses 40, 41, 42, 43, 45, 46 and 47 in reverse order. New clause 47 argues the case for bringing academies into the overall admissions arrangements of other schools. New clause 46 is similar to new clause 42, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), but the latter has the advantage of dealing specifically with anonymised admissions.

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New clause 45 raises the question of the local education authority’s role as the co-ordinator of local admissions arrangements and the monitor of compliance with them. I feel slightly ambiguous about it because I was one of the first to argue that the admissions forums should have a new enhanced power to monitor compliance. I am very pleased to say that that is now in the Bill and I am grateful to the Government for including it. I would still like to test the argument and I hope that the Minister will think further about it in due course. Perhaps we should ensure that the admissions forum has the full support of the LEA, particularly in respect of secretarial and administrative functions.

New clauses 43 and 42 simply place within the Bill the admissions criteria that are deemed to be either acceptable or unacceptable in the current code of practice. There has been a long-standing debate about whether the code of practice or elements of it should be incorporated into the Bill, perhaps as a schedule, and these new clauses make the argument for having a full list of approved over-subscription criteria—not non-permitted criteria—placed directly in the Bill. We have already established a precedent for doing so with some over-subscription criteria: for example, we have agreed that the ban on interviewing, the priority given to children in public care and the promotion of banding should all be in the Bill, so it is illogical if other approved criteria are not in it.

New clause 41 is consequential on new clause 40, which argues, given that the Bill brings about significant changes to admissions arrangements, that we should establish, six months after the passing of the Act, an independent review body to monitor and assess the operation of all aspects of admissions arrangements across the country.

I wish to speak at slightly greater length to new clause 39 and I intend to press it to a vote. The new clause deals almost entirely with process rather than with the arguments between supporters and opponents of selection. An argument about process can take place now only because, for the first time in more than 30 years, we have a consensus between the three main political parties about not returning to selective admissions policies as an organising principle of secondary education in this country. For that, I am hugely grateful to the leader of the Conservative party, who changed the policy earlier this year. I believe that they have listened—

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): Do not go too far!

Mr. Chaytor: No, they have listened carefully to the arguments and considered the evidence about the impact of selective admissions policies. What new clause 39 does is to deal simply with the anomaly that is left. If all three parties accept that a return to the universal 11-plus system is not acceptable because of the various disadvantages of which we are all aware and about which I shall say more later, it remains completely inconsistent that we should support that system in the 36 English local education authorities where it still applies. I do not argue that there is a simple solution, and I do not argue that the
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Government should simply decide to change things overnight. The purpose of my new clause is to suggest a process whereby the remaining anomalies in the 15 wholly selective areas and the 36 areas that contain large elements of selection can be resolved.

4 pm

At the heart of the issue is the fact that it can be resolved neither by local people alone nor by national Government alone. New clause 39 suggests that the Government establish a clear principle, namely that selection is not a desirable form of admission to secondary education, and that they set an end date beyond which selection will no longer be permitted. It proposes 2010 as the end date. At the same time, it allows the current ballot arrangements to be maintained. Parents would be able to engage in debate locally, consider the alternatives and express their views, and would have the right to vote to reintroduce selection if they were so minded.

Mr. Willis: Let me add my voice to the consensus to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.

The School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which introduced the current arrangements for balloting to take a grammar school out of the selective process and recreate it as a comprehensive, was deeply flawed. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has only been one ballot, involving Ripon grammar school in north Yorkshire, and that process was deeply flawed because of the nature of the constituency.

Damian Green: What happened?

Mr. Willis: I have described what happened. The balloting arrangements are deeply flawed: the hon. Gentleman and I agree on that. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) has said that under his new clause the same arrangements would apply. If that is so, the same flawed system determining who can vote would be transferred to this Bill. I think it is appalling that the vast majority of people in the community surrounding a grammar school do not have a say, although it is their local school.

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. He has rightly forced me to clarify my point about the balloting arrangements. Under new clause 39, there would still be a ballot, but the new clause says nothing about the details of the arrangements. I agree that the current ballot regulations are unfortunate. They are designed to protect the status quo, are limited in terms of how they describe the electorate and provide for different kinds of ballot depending on local circumstances; on whether the area is wholly selective, or is largely non-selective but contains individual selective schools. Different rules apply in different circumstances, but I think that the argument for reviewing the ballot regulations is powerful. I hope that if the Government are minded to adopt the new clause at some point, we shall in due course discuss the possibility of a more democratic form of electorate and procedure.

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