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24 May 2006 : Column 1556

I was distraught at the time, however, and so were lots of children who, for whatever reason, “failed”—in inverted commas. That was the language. There were good friends of mine who passed but went to the secondary modern round the corner, the Blessed Thomas Maxwell, either because other mates were going or because grammar schools were seen as snobby and “for them, not for us”. And then there were the kids—and parents—who at that age did not know, did not care and did not have a clue. That was a disgraceful and divisive way to run an education system—to mark out large numbers of children as failures, based on an arbitrary test on an arbitrary day at an arbitrary age.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): As one of those failures who did not pass the 11-plus but was a very good boy indeed, I resent your remarks that people who did not get to a grammar school were failures—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the terms of address. Those certainly were not my remarks.

Mr. Binley: Thank you for that advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take exception to those remarks. Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that the secondary modern schools in many parts of the country gave a very good education and set young people on a solid path to a good future?

Paul Farrelly: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ascent. He speaks eloquently, but perhaps he should listen more carefully. When I used the word “failure”, I deliberately said “in inverted commas”. That was the language. It should never again be the reality.

Selection by so-called academic ability through such a test is a throwback to the days when education was in effect a privilege, not a right. When I was young, the system acted at each stage as a sieve so that a small minority could go to university. At each stage—11-plus, CSE, O-level and A-level—those who did not make the grade were out: they had “failed”. That was the language. Thank heaven that, for most children, those days have gone.

There was no proper vocational education at the local secondary modern. My two brothers went there and left without many qualifications or any preparation for working life whatsoever. In the 1980s, one of them went through a succession of so-called youth training schemes, stacking shelves, only to be “let go” days before his six months were up, when the company was supposed to offer a permanent job. What a great start to life that was.

I was fortunate enough to start at a grammar school. However, there were hierarchies among the grammars. There was a snobbery attached to the grant-maintained schools, all of which locally opted out to become private schools in the mid-1970s. Those hierarchies and snobberies explain why many of us are suspicious about the Bill, which creates yet another new class of schools—trust schools.

As I said, my grammar school went comprehensive. That was a painful process because it involved the merger of two schools—a grammar and a secondary
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modern—but once the pain was over I do not remember Marshlands high school being anything but the better for being a comprehensive. It was far more balanced—and we got girls for the first time, so perhaps I was biased. There was certainly no attachment to the old grammar school, the 11-plus and the all the disgraceful division associated with it, and since then there has been no call from any political party to go back to that system. However, the way in which it was done left an echo of selection that remains divisive to this day.

That time of reorganisation is full of great ironies. It is often said that the Secretary of State who turned more grammars into comprehensives was none other than Margaret Thatcher. And the Secretary of State who presided over the biggest expansion of private education, at least in my area, was a Labour Secretary of State who is now a Liberal Democrat and whose mother, coincidentally, comes from Newcastle-under-Lyme.

It was wrong then, and it is wrong now, that Labour has not followed through by fully addressing academic selection at such a young age. New clause 39 would address that historic anomaly, but not by imposition—it would allow for a ballot of parents of pupils and primary schools feeding grammar schools.

Mr. Brady: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the highest levels of independent education often occur in the areas that have comprehensive schools, whereas the lowest levels often occur in areas such as mine, which have extremely high-performing selective education?

Paul Farrelly: When I was at my comprehensive in Newcastle-under-Lyme, I very much enjoyed going out to the ice rink at Altrincham. I can speak only for my area, where the historical legacy of the way in which the system was changed led to the expansion of private education, not the existence de facto of comprehensive schools.

I want to turn to the years before 1997 when I was campaigning in Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire with my good friend Keith and other long-suffering Labour stalwarts such as my agent, Peter Ward. The area has some great secondary schools—high schools that are not grammars, such as Chesham high school. However, it would be wrong to say that as a result most parents to whom I spoke are happy with the selective system—quite the contrary. Many would welcome the opportunity of a change, or a proper debate about change, which new clause 39 would facilitate.

None of us would be supporting the new clauses if we did not believe that comprehensive education levels up, not down. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North quoted the evidence, which has remained unchallenged by Conservative Members. But there is another factor that is often overlooked. Selective schools, grammar and private, take out of the state system many of the very parents who are most likely to agitate for and contribute to better standards for every child in every school in every community.

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I want to mention one another overlooked factor. In 2000, when, much to the horror of some of my former teachers, I became a governor of my old school, which is now Wolstanton high school, I was taken aback by its size. It had 1,200 pupils, compared with 600 when I was there. Whereas before it had teachers and form heads, it now had, like so many schools, senior management teams and lots of the bureaucracy involved with administering such a large establishment.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman paints a misty-eyed—some would say myopic—view of the comprehensive ideal. Does he favour it in its original incarnation—one sort of school catering for all abilities in one way—or does he support the Government’s view of academies, specialist schools, trust schools and a diversity of provision, whereby different children go to different sorts of school, depending on where they live?

Paul Farrelly: I favour schools with mixed ability that level up, not down, for everybody. Again, I cite the evidence to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North referred. The Opposition have not challenged it.

Labour Members have rightly emphasised smaller class sizes. However, after so many school mergers, the implications of school sizes for teaching and attention to pupils and standards are often missing from the debate. I hope that that will receive attention in future.

We want all schools to be good schools, not factories, inclusive and not divisive, and to level up, not down, for everyone. We want schools that improve life chances for everyone, not only a minority, and we want all parents to have a say. I therefore urge hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools, to support new clause 39.

Mr. Brady: I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), especially as he revealed his early days of skating on the ice rink in Altrincham. That is obviously where he gained his taste for skating on thin ice.

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friends who have spoken, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), who obviously does an excellent job not only for his constituents, but for education. One of the most important aspects of his speech was a preparedness to talk about bad schools. One of the most damaging things in education is the number of people who find it convenient not to admit that bad schools exist. They tend to ignore them and they get away with it. My hon. Friend mentioned Reading local education authority’s performance, with about 46 per cent. of children getting five or more good GCSEs. That is unacceptable. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) intervened on him, and I believe that 50 per cent. of children in her LEA obtain five or more good GCSEs. That is also unacceptable. Such levels of achievement should not be tolerated.

Anne Snelgrove: I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon—I was discussing going to get a cup of tea, so I was not entirely paying attention, but I believe that he
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mentioned my local authority. We are doing several percentage points better than we were in 1997 when the Labour Government came to power.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Lady has fallen into the trap about which I was warning hon. Members—defending abysmal performance that should not be tolerated.I am delighted if the performance is marginally better, but getting 50 per cent. of children through five A* to C grade GCSEs is simply unacceptable.

Anne Snelgrove: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brady: No, I have dealt with the point.

I have a specific obligation in the debate because, as hon. Members who heard my contributions on Second Reading know, my constituency and the borough of Trafford have the best performing schools in England. The system there is wholly selective and it would be an act of vandalism and stupidity to disrupt and damage it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who also represents an area with selective education, made a point about the Liberal Democrats’ contribution. I cannot resist picking up on that, especially given that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) is again in her place, because my experience in Altrincham, like that of my hon. Friend in Kent, is that the Liberal Democrats support grammar schools and selective education. They know how popular they are with parents.

Mr. Khan: In the light of the hon. Gentleman’s comments and those of the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), why will he vote for the Bill, especially clause 36, which abolishes selection by ability and limits the ability of other areas to benefit from the fantastic schools that he mentioned?

Mr. Brady: I am prepared to support the Bill because the current Government and the future Government thankfully agree on one issue—the excellent education that is offered in my constituency and elsewhere in the borough of Trafford should remain. The Government and the Opposition are joining together on that—new clause 39 will be defeated. Good education in those areas can therefore continue.

Mr. Khan: That is precisely the point. While the status quo remains for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, he is denying others that right. If he supports that ethos, how can he support clause 36 or the Bill?

Mr. Brady: If the hon. Gentleman reads my remarks on Second Reading, he will see that I made some of these points then. There are of course other measures that I would like to see in the Bill or another education Bill. I have made that very clear.

I was about to make a point about the Liberal Democrats. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford was concerned about whether the Liberal Democrat candidate in Ashford would be honest enough to communicate the position of the Liberal Democrats on
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these issues. Whether or not they do so, I would urge my hon. Friend to do as I intend to do, which is to take it upon myself to inform the local community of how the Liberal Democrats vote on the Bill today. It is essential that people understand where the Liberal Democrats stand on quality education, and I intend to ensure that they do.

Sarah Teather: When the hon. Gentleman makes that position clear, presumably he will also make it clear that new clause 39 would allow for a parental ballot. It would therefore allow grammar schools to exist if they were very popular in a particular area.

Mr. Brady: I will, but I was listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s opening remarks on this subject—brief as they were—in which she made it clear that she opposed selection and grammar schools. I will be happy to give way to her again if she wants to make it clear that she in fact supports grammar schools and selection; otherwise, I will rely on the remarks that she has already placed on the record.

Sarah Teather: We have always made it clear that this is a matter for local discretion, just as new clause 39 allows.

5 pm

Mr. Brady: Well, there we are—as with everything else for the Liberal Democrats, this is a matter for local discretion.

The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) has pointed out that we have had this debate many times before, both inside and outside the House of Commons. I know that his views are as sincerely held as mine. I believe that he is profoundly mistaken, and he believes that I am. That is the way in which debates ought to be conducted.

Mr. Chaytor: I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I know that his majority depends on the parents who send their children to Trafford grammar schools.

Mr. Brady: Well, the hon. Gentleman may be right, but his majority in Bury, North might prove more elusive than mine at the next election. I would have much more faith in the arguments that he advances—especially his argument for the maintenance of the balloting arrangement to mitigate the damage of his proposals—if he had put in his amendment a proposal that the ballots should be extended more widely to other communities. As I said in an earlier intervention, I might even have been tempted to vote for such a proposal.

I have no doubt whatever that the situation in my constituency would be similar to that in Kent, where the few campaigners against the grammar schools could get nowhere near the 5 per cent. threshold necessary to trigger a ballot. However, if such a ballot were to take place in my constituency, I am confident that the majority in favour of preserving the highest performing education system in the country would be at least as great as it was when such a vote took place in Ripon, albeit with a different type of electorate.

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Mr. Chaytor: In that case, why is the hon. Gentleman so opposed to new clause 39? He should be supporting it, because it would give him the opportunity to prove once and for all that his pro-selection argument is supported by his constituents. Also, why is he not arguing for ballots in the other parts of Greater Manchester?

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman knows that I do argue for precisely that, and not just in Greater Manchester. I advanced that case on Second Reading. I would be delighted if parents across the country were given the freedom to choose on this issue. He asks why I do not want to put this matter to the test in Trafford. He has already pointed out his own test, which is the test provided by the electorate. That is clearly why my majority has tripled in the past three general elections and why we have now regained control of Trafford borough council. Of course, if he were to advance the same cogent arguments that I do on this subject, he might still be gracing the House with his presence after the next general election, rather than merely until that time. I wish that he would come over to our side on this issue.

The hon. Gentleman talked about opinion polling, but he was slightly selective in his choice of statistics. He referred to a YouGov poll, which apparently took place last year, but did not allude to the ICM poll that took place in March this year—much more recently in the context of the debate about this Bill—which showed 70 per cent. support for more grammar schools. That, however, is not really the point. The fundamental point is what works in raising standards in education. He did not explain in his opening remarks why the borough of Trafford gets more than 70 per cent. of children through five or more good GCSEs, whereas the borough of Bury, which he represents, gets only 58 per cent. through. I have been trying to get that explanation from him for months if not years, so I would be delighted to listen to what he has to say.

Mr. Chaytor: If I did not explain that then, I shall explain it now. The borough of Trafford sucks in children from the whole of Greater Manchester, and the higher standards of Trafford are achieved at the expense of lower standards in Manchester, Salford, Wigan, Warrington and the county of Cheshire. It is simple.

Mr. Brady: I assure the hon. Gentleman that he does not know my borough as well as I do. If he did, he would know that those who are sucked in, as he put it, by the high-quality schools available in the borough come in many cases from much more deprived areas, such as Wythenshawe on the Manchester side of the boundary. I am afraid that there is no cogency to the point that he makes.

Similarly, the hon. Gentleman alluded to the education system and performance in Northern Ireland without, astonishingly, mentioning that Northern Ireland gets the best GCSE results in the whole of the United Kingdom. It is scandalous that the Government intend to proceed to abolish Northern Ireland’s grammar schools, which, together with its high schools, achieve the best results in the whole
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country. He did not seek to apply his balloting regime there. Apparently, he is happy for Labour Ministers—from a party that is not even represented in Northern Ireland—to act over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland, the massive of majority of whom, when there was consultation on the subject, supported keeping the system as it is.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that the selective education system in Northern Ireland not only provides better results but better social mobility?

Mr. Brady: I absolutely accept that it does, and that is also the case in other areas that retain selective education. Of course, in many areas where there are grammar schools, they are enormously popular, especially with some ethnic minority populations, who find them a way of raising their achievements and increasing their opportunities in life.

The hon. Member for Bury, North talked about a consensus on this issue, and there is a sort of consensus developing— [Interruption.] He says from a sedentary position that I am not part of it, and he may be right. It is a funny kind of consensus, however. The Government and the Opposition agree that existing grammar schools and selective areas should be left alone because they work so well. My hon. Friendthe Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton(Mr. Gibb) also made it clear that the quality of education can be improved by teaching to a smaller section of the ability range, which is why setting and streaming works to raise standards in schools. Again, that is a point of consensus between Government and Opposition.

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