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5 pm

Ed Balls: In that case, I think that it is a technical term. It would refer to the governing body of those schools in those three cases. I shall confirm that when I make my concluding remarks after the debate, but I am sure that that is the case.

In conclusion, the admissions code was a decisive step forward, but we need to ensure that it is implemented properly and consistently across the country. We have had the support of schools, parents and all the faith groups in taking forward our drive for fair admissions in recent weeks. I hope that we will achieve consensus in the House on new clause 14 and the importance of fair admissions.

I know that consensus on the Bill has at times proved elusive. We have the support of the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce on the wider debates, but there were differences in Committee that we will hear about later, in particular about the core of the Bill, which is the subject of compulsion. I hope that there will be an opportunity for Opposition Members to change their minds and to join the consensus in the country about the importance of education to 18 being for all young people, not just for some. On admissions, I urge Opposition Members to put politics aside and to support our reforms to deliver a level playing field and fairness for all parents. That is what our new clause will achieve. I hope that we will have the support of all parties today.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I am sure that I am not alone in the House in being moved by the Secretary of State’s plea for consensus and for us all to put aside petty politics in the interests of the nation. It is a great pity that the right hon. Members for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) are not in the Chamber to hear that plea.

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I am also conscious of the way the Secretary of State framed the debate, and the way he talked about the importance of ensuring that everyone has the right to participate in education and training until the age of 18. As the Secretary of State will recall from Second Reading, and from the points that were made so well by my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) in Committee, the Opposition are committed to education not only until the age of 18 but beyond. We are committed to lifelong learning, to expanding university participation and to ensuring that every child who wishes to has the opportunity to allow their talent—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are not on Third Reading. We are addressing the contents of new clause 14.

Michael Gove: I am sure that if the Secretary of State wishes to refresh his memory on our views, he can do so by reading Hansard. I would recommend that exercise to all.

We all want admissions to be fair. We all want equity and transparency in admissions. As the Secretary of State, typically generous and consensual, pointed out, we played a part in ensuring that the admissions code formed part of the Education and Inspections Bill. I remember that the Secretary of State was less keen on that Bill as a Back Bencher than some, but, nevertheless, with the help of Conservative votes and after considerable soothing of the fevered brows of Labour Back Benchers, that legislation made its way on to the statute book.

When it comes to discussing admissions, the Government do not come to the debate with entirely clean hands. We saw the approach that the Secretary of State and his team take to admissions—he alluded to this case—just a few weeks ago. It was not an edifying spectacle. I shall turn in a second to what that episode reveals and how it inevitably affects the discussion of these amendments. First, however, I shall deal with the broader philosophical question behind admissions and the Government’s approach to them, as well as our approach and that of the other Opposition parties.

Unfortunately, there is still an old Labour, socialist approach to the question of admissions. It is not restricted merely to the Back Benches graced by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), but is evident in Sanctuary buildings, too. It is the Secretary of State’s belief that what really matters is manipulating access to a limited number of good school places, instead of expanding their number overall. If only he would commit as much intellectual energy to generating more good school places as he does to the micro-management of their allocation, this country would be in a better place and his political reputation would rank higher today.

Rob Marris: Not possible!

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West for displaying a spirit of loyalty that is sadly lacking at the moment on the Labour Bank Benches. No doubt it will stand him in good stead in whatever reshuffle we inevitably see after 22 May.

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The Government’s approach to admissions has been described by some as bleeding heart Stalinism. In the Soviet Union, the production and enjoyment of a few worthwhile goods such as Zil limousines were restricted—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing the contents of new clause 14 and the amendments grouped with it. Perhaps he will address his remarks accordingly.

Michael Gove: Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. My contention is that those who criticise the Government for their approach to admissions are on to something. Instead of ensuring a genuine expansion in the number of good school places, the Government want to ration the limited number of such places.

In Soviet Russia, there were a few goods that were worth while, such as Zil limousines, and they were reserved for the nomenklatura, the bureaucratic elite. As far as this Government are concerned, there are a few good school places and they will be allocated at random or through the admissions code. They believe that that is enough to justify their approach to education. Instead of concentrating and devoting their intellectual energy to generating more good school places, for the Government it is a matter of dividing up what already exists—a classic left-wing approach.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): I cannot help but point out to the hon. Gentleman that he seems to be describing in great detail what happens in Kent. There, access to good school places is limited by the Conservative council to those pupils who can pass the 11-plus examination. The admissions process is geared to making sure that they get two first choices in the admissions procedure, rather than the one to which everyone else is restricted. How does the hon. Gentleman think we should address that problem?

Michael Gove: I am interested in the question of selection, and note that the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) has tabled an amendment that deals with the broader issue of selection at 11 and grammar schools. My party shares what I think was the view of the former Prime Minister: we believe that in counties where selection still occurs—Kent and Buckinghamshire, for example—it is a matter for local people to decide. The arrangements in place should remain as long as they command popular support. If the hon. Gentleman agrees with that view, I am delighted; but if he takes issue with it, that is a matter for him and his constituents.

Dr. Ladyman: I certainly support the Government’s position that it should be a matter for local choice but, as I shall set out later, the problem is that in Kent the rules currently require us to get up a petition of more than 40,000 names—together with a whole raft of information to verify that they are the correct people—before we can have a referendum. If, at some point in the future, I can convince my Front-Bench colleagues that they should simplify the process so that we can have a referendum on selection in Kent once and for all, will the hon. Gentleman support me in that?

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Michael Gove: No, but I look forward to the discussions that the hon. Gentleman is going to have with his Front-Bench colleagues.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: I am delighted to give way to the Minister.

Jim Knight: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. While we are on the subject of grammar schools, I should say that there has been some uncertainty about his position. If an authority such as Tory Buckinghamshire wanted to build new grammar schools, would he support that?

Michael Gove: My position is that where, for reasons of demographic change, there is any need to expand the provision of grammar school places, we should allow the existing legislative framework to govern the process.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Surely the hon. Gentleman knows that under the existing legislative process he would have to table an amendment to allow for a new grammar school?

Michael Gove rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I really must stop this discussion on grammar schools. I remind all hon. Members that we are discussing new clause 14 and admissions policy.

Michael Gove: It is always a pleasure to receive your rulings, Madam Deputy Speaker.

In the debate on grammar schools, some people sometimes take the view that intake determines how good a school is, and that if we manipulate that, we fix everything. The view is taken by some on the extreme left and by others who are stuck in the past. My view is that it is not the social engineering of the intake that makes a good school, but getting the basics right. If a school has the right ethos and good behaviour and discipline, if its leadership team inculcates appropriate values in all those associated with the school, and if high standards are the school’s watchword, any school, no matter how challenging its intake, can be good. I—and, I am sure, the Secretary of State—have seen schools with uniquely challenging intakes produce superb results. I have also seen schools in relatively privileged areas where high standards have not been the norm, and where expectations have not been as high as they should be. Those schools have been underperforming.

It is my contention that deprivation is not destiny. It is the quality of the school, not the background of the intake, that is the decisive factor. It should be the mission of hon. Members from across the House to drive up standards, whatever a school’s intake, and to concentrate on the changes that will generate improvements.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman has said something with which I can agree wholeheartedly, so may I recommend to him the research done by Professor Jesson at York university? He has clearly demonstrated that in areas where selection is the norm, standards of teaching in
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grammar schools, measured on an “added value” basis, are far worse than in schools that have a comprehensive ethos, or where pupils are not selectively chosen. If the hon. Gentleman is interested in genuinely driving up standards, will he study that research, and if he agrees with its conclusions, will he join me in my campaign against selection?

Michael Gove: I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his commitment to evidence-based policy making. I will look with interest at the research that he mentions, but my assessment, from all the educational research that I have read, is that the debate is a red herring. Ultimately, it is what happens in schools, and not how they select their intake, that determines how successful they are. However, he makes his point courteously, so I shall take the trouble to get hold of the research that he mentions.

There has been a measure of agreement among Front Benchers and Back Benchers about the importance of recognising and celebrating good schools and the ethos that makes them distinctive and successful. The worrying thing about the Government’s approach to admissions and the admissions code is that they have alienated good heads and have undermined good schools. In March, as the Secretary of State pointed out, the Government rushed out an announcement in which they drew attention to what they perceived to be numerous infractions of the admissions code. The timing of the announcement was curious: it was made on the same day that we discovered that one in five parents found their children had been denied their choice of school. Headlines would have underlined the extent of Government failure to generate enough good school places. Curiously, instead of explaining why that had taken place, the Government attacked successful schools. Why? Well, I can only quote the words of Joshua Rowe, one of the governors of King David high school in Manchester, who said:

I can only quote the Church of England’s chief education officer, Jan Ainsworth, who said:

It was not only Jan Ainsworth who spoke up on behalf of the Church of England. Colin Hopkins, secretary to the Dearing review commissioned under the previous Prime Minister, stated that as a result of what Ministers had said the public had been given an

Listening to the Secretary of State, one would have got the impression that faith leaders welcomed his intervention the other month, but all those directly involved in the provision of faith education pointed out that the style, manner and content of the ministerial intervention was directly hostile to the ethos of those good schools.

5.15 pm

It was not just faith leaders who made that point. Conor Ryan, who was not just special adviser to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) when he was Secretary of State, but adviser on public
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service reform to the former Prime Minister, also pointed out that the problem with turning the issue that the present Secretary of State deliberately chose to raise into a cause cél├Ębre is that it

Denounced by governors, criticised by the Church of England, held to account by those in the front line and damned by the man who was responsible for the education reforms that genuinely marked out the first few years of the Government as distinctive—not a happy position for the Secretary of State.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman has used the noun three times, but what does “ethos” mean in the present context?

Michael Gove: A good question. “Ethos” refers, inevitably, to the qualities that a school has that make it distinctive and special, the qualities that parents admire and pupils appreciate—a commitment to discipline, to high standards, to making sure that an academic curriculum is available to all, a belief that every child, properly taught and appropriately nurtured, can achieve more than the parents may ever have envisaged.

One of the distinctive features of faith schools is that, whether actuated by the individual tenets of the beliefs that motivated the founders or by the commitment of those within them to good education, they consistently outperform the mean level of other schools. They are something to be cherished, something that the previous Prime Minister made it clear that he cherished, and they are schools that, unfortunately, feel demoralised and under attack as a result of the Secretary of State’s intervention—not a happy moment in his career.

What was the consequence of the Secretary of State’s intervention? We had lurid headlines about cash for places. Any suggestion that cash was determining access would have been worth objecting to, but there was no evidence that cash was determining access. As I pointed out on the Floor of the House, the money that was required and requested by those schools was required and requested for good reasons and entirely consistent with established practice, not affected by the clauses and amendments that we are discussing today.

It was the case that the money that was asked for specifically by Jewish faith schools was to provide the physical security of those children, who face a renewed and increased threat of anti-Semitic attack, and it was also required to pay for the explicitly religious Jewish studies, which are not covered by the amount of money that the DCSF remits for education in those schools. So it is entirely understandable that there should be a request for purely voluntary contributions.

Within the community concerned, people knew that the contributions were entirely voluntary. It is the case, as was pointed out by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, that in some of those schools a third of parents or less are paying the voluntary contributions requested. If it was the case that those voluntary contributions constituted a barrier, if it was the case that they determined entry, why in those schools would so few be making that contribution? When the Secretary of State launched that attack, he was not aware of the precise figures, how
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many people had paid or their circumstances. If he had been, I doubt very much whether he would have launched his ill considered attack.

Mr. Laws: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the timing of the Government announcement, but is he saying that he is comfortable with maintained schools asking for voluntary donations in that way? Does he not see the obvious risk?

Michael Gove: I appreciate that when it comes to asking for any contribution sensitivity must be applied, but that sensitivity cuts both ways. It is important to ensure that schools ask for a contribution after admissions have been granted and in a way that ensures that members of the community are fully aware of how that money will be deployed. But it is also incumbent on the Secretary of State to show sensitivity to minority faith groups. If he believes, and I believe, that the situation could have been improved, he had a choice. His choice was publicly to name and shame schools in a way that led them to believe that their position was under threat, to see those schools criticised, and to see their names appear in the press under the allegation that there was somehow a cash for access scam operating. The Secretary of State will have an opportunity later in this debate to disavow that implication, apologise for the coverage that his intervention generated and put on the record his admiration for those schools and his regret at his and his Department’s clumsiness. I look forward to that; it would be a gracious acknowledgement that would do him great credit.

Ed Balls: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: I am delighted to.

Ed Balls: As the hon. Gentleman knows, since I became Secretary of State I have said many times that I fully support faith schools, including Jewish faith schools. Is he really saying that, if he had been in my position, with the clear information that a number of schools were making contributions part of the admission process in direct contradiction of the law, he would have chosen not to make that information available—not just to the schools themselves, but to parents in the area? Is he really saying that he would have decided to deny the public that information?

Michael Gove: I would have verified my facts before calling a press conference at a politically convenient time to cover my embarrassment and make schools the victims of a witch hunt. The Secretary of State owes it to those schools to offer not vanilla words of support, but proper words of regret and an acknowledgement of the hurt that they and their governing bodies felt and of the difficulties that they faced in the national press as a result. If the Secretary of State did that, I would be grateful and we could move on to discuss other aspects of what he proposes. It is interesting that, even at this stage, the Secretary of State, in a hole, insists on digging.

Ed Balls: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: I shall be delighted to.

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