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Mr. Brady: Thankfully, common sense prevailed in the Ripon ballot. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman
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on at least demonstrating a greater commitment to democracy than the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), but given his belief that there should be a role for ballots and for democratic choice, why does he not have the courage of his convictions? Why does new clause 39 not allow the balloting process to be available to parents in areas containing comprehensive schools that are failing?

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman asked me the same question in a Manchester BBC studio about two weeks ago. The answer I gave him then is the answer I shall give him now. I am sympathetic to that argument, for the simple reason that if the Conservative party in my constituency went into the next general election arguing wholesale—in a ballot—for the reintroduction of the system that was scrapped in Bury 30 years ago and to which hardly anyone wishes to return, I should be delighted to fight the election on those terms.

The majority of my colleagues would also welcome that opportunity. If we were to find that the modern, newborn, compassionate Conservatives—the friends of the poor and the dispossessed—were suddenly, in the next general election, fighting ballots throughout the country to take us back to the 1950s, we would be delighted. So the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) makes an important point, and I am inclined to table a handwritten amendment to that very effect.

Mr. Brady: I hope that the hon. Gentleman does, and I might even be tempted to vote for it. However, surely those ballots ought not to be fought by political parties. Is not his point that this is a matter for parents to decide? If he believes that parents in areas that are currently selective should be able to decide, why will not he give a choice to parents in areas with failing comprehensives, who might choose a grammar school?

Mr. Chaytor: The point is that the new clause would deal with the remaining anomalies in the system. I take it as read that the three main political parties have settled their argument about what happens in the majority of the country. Of course, there is an internal debate in the Tory party between those who deeply resent the change of policy and those who are prepared to put up with it; but that is a matter for the Tories, and I suggest that they go somewhere else and have that internal debate.

New clause 39 has to be seen together with new clause 40. In retrospect, it may have been preferable to incorporate the latter into the former, because new clause 40 calls for an independent review of the admissions arrangements. So the strength of the argument is simply this. If the Government accepted the new clause, they would build on the all-party consensus that no longer accepts selection as the organising principle for admission to secondary education by following through the logic of that consensus and establishing the end-date of 2010. Six months after the Bill has been enacted, an independent review body would be established to examine all aspects of our admissions arrangements, and to study the evidence of the impact of admissions arrangements in different parts of the country. The review body would report before 2010, and we could then have an
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informed debate based on evidence, not on ideology or prejudice. Parents would then form their judgments in the light of that informed debate. That is precisely why I am confident that if such a procedure were adopted, very few parts of the country would choose to reintroduce selection.

It is hugely significant that since the great change to our admissions policies under the Labour Government between 1964 and 1970, and under the Conservative Government between 1970 and 1974—of course, we all know which Tory Secretary of State was responsible for abolishing more selection in our system than anybody else—we have been unable to have that informed debate.

I draw an analogy with the way in which we have tried to resolve other intractable problems when the political parties have themselves found it difficult to reach agreement. All the parties agreed that it was necessary to get a neutral third-party expert to consider the funding of higher education, and we invited Ron Dearing to take charge of the commission dealing with HE funding. The Government did not accept everything in the Dearing report, but it was subsequently considered to be the authoritative body of evidence and argument, and now we all refer to it. I am delighted that, in another of the Tories’ historic flip-flops, they have adopted our policy on HE funding.

I also draw attention to the impact of the Tomlinson report on education reform for 14 to 19-year-olds. That issue was a political football that the parties kicked about for a number of years. There was a desperate need for consensus, and we resolved the problem by setting up an independent review body under the chairmanship of Mike Tomlinson. [Interruption.] No—Mike Tomlinson suggested that there would be a 10-year period of reform and change, and the Government have taken the first steps as part of that reform.

Let us move outside education and consider the analogy of pensions policy, the implications of an ageing work force, and the balance between the responsibilities of the state, the individual and the employer. What did we do to deal with that issue? We brought in a former president of the CBI and gave him the task of building a national consensus on pensions policy.

We can draw some lessons from the Turner report. A few months ago, there was very little public support for the raising of the state retirement age. Because of the work of the Turner commission and the informed debate that followed the publication of its report, the Government are now confident enough to raise the retirement age and a majority of the public are in favour because they now understand the arguments clearly. That is the best analogy I can give for the way in which I would envisage new clause 40 operating, with an independent review body of admissions. We need a neutral expert to lead the national debate and gather all the evidence. With such a lead, we could kill off all the old sterile arguments about which kind of school is best and how many A to C grades this school has as opposed to that school. We could really focus on the impact of selection in our system and, once we did so, people could form their views accordingly.

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I assume—I may be wrong, and they can correct me later—that the Conservatives have reached their new position because they understand that selective admissions policies lower achievement overall. They understand, because they have read the recently published evidence from Professor Jesson, chief academic adviser to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust; because they have considered what the National Foundation for Educational Research has been saying for many years; and because they have read what the London Institute of Education has said. The Conservatives know that the brightest children perform equally well, if not slightly better, in all-ability schools than in selective schools. They know that the impact of selection is to depress results overall; to depress post-16 participation rates overall; and to increase levels of segregation overall.

The Tory party also knows the differential between selective and non-selective schools, in respect of the proportion of children on free schools meals. It is slightly over 1 per cent. in selective schools and almost 17 per cent. in the population as a whole. Similar figures exist for children with special educational needs and, in some parts of the country, from minority ethnic groups—an issue that has not been examined in the detail that it deserves.

The Tories also know what we find if we compare Northern Ireland, the most selective area with the highest levels of segregation, with Scotland, with the least segregation; it compares favourably with the Scandinavian countries that manage to combine equity and high standards. In Northern Ireland, the number of adults in the population who left school with no qualifications is twice the number for Scotland. In Scotland, the number of adults in the work force with degrees or degree-equivalent qualifications is almost 50 per cent. higher than in Northern Ireland. That is the most dramatic evidence that selective systems depress results overall, lower levels of attainment and increase levels of social segregation.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): The points that my hon. Friend has just made about Northern Ireland and Scotland will, I presume, enable Ministers to support his proposal, because they have taken the enlightened step of tackling selection in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Chaytor: My hon. Friend anticipates my final remarks. The great advantage of new clauses 39 and 40 is that they combine the merits of the Government’s policy in Northern Ireland—establishing a commission and setting an end date for selection—with the merits of the policy in the remaining selective areas of England, which is to leave the decision to parental ballot. The beauty of the new clauses is that we get two Labour policies for the price of one. I commend the new clauses to the House and confirm that I wish to press new clause 39 to a Division.

Damian Green: I wish to speak against unnecessary disruption in our schools and in favour of local choice, and therefore I speak against new clause 39, which was supported with characteristic eloquence and wrong-headedness by the hon. Member for Bury, North
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(Mr. Chaytor). That is a reminder to us all that the prejudices of old Labour are still around, and that the party is still fighting the battles of the 1960s and 1970s.

4.15 pm

I have not participated in education debates for a few years, so this afternoon’s exchanges have been quite nostalgic for me. I have been struck by how insular and inward looking our debates on education are. The point underlying the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) was that there are different ways to achieve an excellent academic education. That is true, especially when one looks at what happens in the rest of Europe.

By and large, the schools in Holland are big comprehensives that contain significantly different streams. In any given Dutch town, one can find what is effectively a grammar school on the same site as a good technical vocational school. Incidentally, it is the lack of the latter schools that is the real, long-term failure of British education.

The German approach is different, with different types of schools being provided. Over the past 30 or 40 years, both countries have gone through good and bad periods. Their results have been better than ours some of the time, and at other times they have been worse, but both have managed to ensure that debates about education have been about improving children’s life chances. They have not allowed them to deal in social engineering, class warfare or any of the things that have bedevilled education debates in this country. I am depressed to find that those influences still affect our debates here.

It is a shame that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) has left the Chamber. She did not respond to my earlier intervention, but I was fascinated to hear her commit the Liberal Democrats to supporting new clause 39 and therefore the abolition of all grammar schools. I shall be interested to see whether my Liberal Democrat opponent in Ashford at the next general election says the same thing, and whether his counterpart in the neighbouring constituency of Folkestone and Hythe is pledged to abolish the grammar schools in Folkestone. Over the years, I do not remember Liberal Democrats ever saying such things in counties such as Kent, but the party’s policy may have changed under the hon. Lady’s tutelage.

Mr. Chaytor: Nothing in new clause 39 would lead to the abolition of any school. It may cause some schools to change their character, and it would open up many good schools to more young people. Fair access and fair admission are at the heart of that new clause.

Damian Green: New clause 39 would enable the prejudices of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to be imposed on schools in my constituency and elsewhere, against the wishes of the people who live in our towns and cities. That is what I object to.

Annette Brooke: I feel that we have already debated the question of parental views and voting. Does the
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hon. Gentleman not think that it is perfectly reasonable that parents should have a say in how the education system is run?

Damian Green: Yes, I do think that it is reasonable. That is precisely the point that I am making.

I oppose new clause 39 because I saw the damaging effect of anti-grammar school campaigns in the late 1990s and the early years of this century, both in my constituency and across Kent. Those campaigns damaged all the schools in the area, and not just grammar schools, because they diverted effort, money, resources and energy from education. People who should have been involved in improving school standards took up opposing positions in destructive political campaigns that, in the end, achieved nothing because they had no support.

In Kent, for example, the Government’s regulations meant that the anti-grammar school campaigners needed 45,000 signatures to trigger a ballot. When they set off, they were extremely confident that they would achieve that number, but that was in the late 1990s heyday of new Labour, when it was both new and popular. It is neither of those things today.

After months of trying, however, the campaigners were forced to admit that they were giving up, as they were able to raise only 7,000 signatures in the whole of Kent. That was not just a failure, it was a pathetic failure. Despite the opinion polls quoted by the hon. Member for Bury, North, the campaign showed that the parents who knew most about education did not want it to be disrupted. A majority of those parents would have known that their children would go not to grammar schools but to the high schools or comprehensives that we have in certain parts of Kent, yet not only would they not vote to change the system, but they would not even sign the petition to trigger a ballot.

That is clear evidence, in addition to the one ballot that actually did take place—in Ripon. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) could not even bring himself to say what happened, which was that when parents were faced with a choice they voted to retain the existing system. In Kent, which is a much larger area, parents did not even want a ballot. However, the anti-grammar school campaigners came back again and again, and the energies and efforts of too many people were spent for too long on something that was not helpful to any school in the area.

I hope and expect that the common sense of those on the Treasury Bench, including the new Secretary of State, means that people of reason and common sense on both sides of the House will vote against the new clause—against the hard left of the Labour party and their natural allies, nowadays, in the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that they will be defeated, because when parents have had the chance to speak they have spoken loudly against that type of change. They do not want to destroy the existing school system.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab) rose—

Damian Green: Ah, a Kent MP.

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Gwyn Prosser: The hon. Gentleman paints a picture of Kent that I do not recognise, and nor would my colleagues or the heads and staff of Kent secondary modern and high schools. We did not reach the tripping point because the level was set far too high. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the conversations between people who, like me, were campaigning for change, and the parents of primary school children were not on the lines of, “That’s all right, I know my child’s not going to get into the grammar school, but let’s vote for the status quo anyway”. It was the ambition of all of them to get their children into grammar schools, but they did not. If we held those conversations again, the answer would be very different.

Finally, has the hon. Gentleman ever met a high school head or teacher who supports selection—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his case.

Damian Green: The answer to the question put by the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) is: many. Very few head teachers have told me that they want the wholesale disruption of Kent schools; they all know that is what would happen if he had his way. He says that the problem is that the barrier to trigger the ballot was set too high. I have to say, first, that that is a touch pathetic and, secondly, it was not a near miss; the tripping point was missed by miles—by a quantum of six or seven. There is no enthusiasm for the change.

I realise that the hon. Gentleman campaigned for change and would no doubt continue to do so, but he had no support from the vast mass of parents in Kent, so he should change tack and support different systems in different parts of the country. I observe what happens in my constituency, as no doubt he does in his. In my nearby constituency, schools work well together. Ashford grammar schools and high schools co-operate in a forum; they work together in an imaginative new cluster system. People do not care whether they are working with a high school or a grammar school and primary schools work with both. Educational standards, which need improving, can be improved. Overall, the system works well for the children from relatively poor backgrounds who can benefit from a highly academic education.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): As I understand it, the national policy of the Conservatives, as enunciated by their new, old Etonian leader, is not to have selection by ability for secondary schools. We can understand that a self-proclaimed Conservative wants to maintain the status quo in Kent—that is what Conservatives do—but what is the logic of saying that they are against selection by ability everywhere in the country except where there are grammar schools already? It is postcode selection.

Damian Green: The logic was very well explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was here to listen to his speech. As I said, I am speaking in favour of non-disruption and local choice. The first seems an extremely sensible
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educational point. The second seems an extremely good Conservative principle. Indeed, the Government whom he sporadically supports occasionally say that they support that principle, too. They say that they are in favour of local choice. I invite the Government to put their words into practice and support local choice, as I think that they will in opposing new clause 39. I will happily go into the Division Lobby with them to do that.

Mr. Chaytor: If the hon. Gentleman is so confident that the people of Kent would support the status quo and that the merits of the system in Kent are so self-evident, why is he frightened of putting the matter to a ballot under new clause 39?

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman is not listening to what I am saying. I am not frightened of that, but I saw what happened after the ballots were introduced under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. There were years of disruption in Kent schools. People were not spending enough time making the schools better. They were spending too much of their time preparing themselves for a political campaign. I do not want to go through that again and I do not want the schools to go through that again.

Every parent—every family—should have choice, not just the well-off. One of the more sensible things that the Government have said in recent years was in their response to the Education and Skills Committee’s report on secondary schools admissions in November 2004:

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