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5.45 pm

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman has just made some very good points about social deprivation, but I want to bring him back to the issue of pupils choosing schools, rather than schools choosing pupils. Can he assure me that that Liberal Democrat policy will apply to the party’s candidates in Kent, because I have now been opposed at three general elections by a Liberal Democrat candidate who was fully committed to grammar schools and to selection at the age of 11?

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my comments on new clauses 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22, and I shall come to that point in a few minutes.

Regardless of the report that informed the Secretary of State’s announcement a couple of months ago, this element of unfair admission practices should not have come as a surprise to his Department, not only because of the report that the Select Committee produced a couple of years ago but because of the research commissioned by the Department over the past six months. I refer in particular to the DCSF paper on secondary school admissions, which was commissioned by his Department and bears the departmental imprint. It was released in January 2008 and contained work undertaken by Sheffield Hallam university and by the National Centre for Social Research on behalf of the Department.

That research identified some of the unfair practices that new clause 14 seeks to address. It also highlighted other concerns about the way in which the admissions system concentrates educational need in certain establishments but not in others. The findings in the report tally with other parts of the Select Committee’s report, to which I will refer in a minute. It stated:

It went on to look at some of the other driving forces behind segregated intakes, including the present aspects of selection in the education system. Some of those aspects have been grandfathered in our system for some time now through grammar schools, but there are other aspects of selection in the system, including selection that has been brought in by this Government since 1997 under the guise of the ability to select by aptitude. That is the issue that new clause 18 seeks to address.

Rob Marris: I confess that I am not an education expert, and I have never understood the difference between selection by aptitude and selection by ability.
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New clause 18 refers to selection by aptitude. Does the hon. Gentleman encompass in the word “aptitude” the concept of ability, or does he distinguish between aptitude and ability? If so, will he explain how he does that?

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I will tell him in a minute what the Government’s response to that question is. He will probably know, as an assiduous Back Bencher, that the Select Committee investigated this precise point in its report of 2004. It said that it could find

I know that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Select Committee Chairman, was in constructive mode in his earlier comments. I pay tribute to the report that he and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), drew up a number of years ago, which was clearly ahead of its time in respect of Government policy. The hon. Gentleman was perhaps a little generous, however, in overlooking some of the other parts of that Select Committee report on admissions, which the Government have yet to address. Some of the issues are dealt with in new clause 18 on selection by aptitude.

Mr. Sheerman: May I remind the hon. Gentleman that I was speaking to new clause 14? Others have drifted into areas beyond it, but I tried to stick to that new clause.

Mr. Laws: I appreciate how disciplined our Select Committee Chairman is, but we are dealing with a group of amending provisions, which allows me to talk more widely and to tempt the hon. Gentleman into doing the same. Paragraphs 200 and 201 were not at all generous about the Government’s policy of selection by aptitude. Let me remind Members who may not have a copy of the report precisely what they said:

The conclusion was:

It is particularly interesting to look at the evidence recently commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which I commend particularly for its paper on secondary school admissions.

Mr. Sheerman: Let me assure the hon. Gentleman, in case he thinks that I have just rolled over and let the Government step over me, that I still believe in every word in that report. I am sure that that is true of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) and, indeed, of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). We all believe what was said about the 10 per cent. and we still stand by it.

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Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Select Committee Chairman for assuring us that he is not going to roll over on any of these issues and that he will continue to adopt the robust position that he has on this and other issues. I would say to him that the Department’s own research also seems to be catching up on this issue raised in the Select Committee report compiled by him and his colleagues back in 2004. As well as identifying that some existing unfair practices needed to be done away with, the report noted the quite significant increase in percentage terms in the use of the power to select by aptitude.

Some hon. Members may be surprised to know that it is not only the schools defined as specialist schools that have the power to select by aptitude, as any maintained school that considers itself to have a specialism is able to select in that way. It is interesting to note the extent to which that power for secondary schools to select by aptitude has grown over the past few years. In 2000, only 1.3 per cent. of schools used that power, which had grown to 3 per cent. by 2001 and was up to 4 per cent. in 2006. As the number of specialist schools grows, of course, the power to select by aptitude grows with it.

The Government say that they do not know how many schools exercise their freedom to select by aptitude, but it looks from the data as if the proportion of children within our schools system who are selected by aptitude is now larger than the number selected by ability through the grammar school system. The latest data for grammar schools show that about 4.7 per cent. of the school cohort are selected by ability. If selection by aptitude has continued to grow since 2006, we will be very close to that figure.

Dr. Ladyman: I must point out the logical flaw in the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Grammar schools’ selection by ability is concentrated in a couple of areas where the level of selection is very high, but the hon. Gentleman is comparing that figure with selection by aptitude, which is averaged over the whole country. The two figures cannot be compared.

Mr. Laws: I am pointing out that the Government and most of their Back Benchers who committed to halt an expansion in admission by ability or aptitude are now involved in a quite large experiment in which those forms of selection are increasingly used. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report that his Government Department and the Secretary of State commissioned on this issue. I hope that the Secretary of State has had a chance to see its conclusions, because the Government’s own research shows that

That brings us back to the issues in the Select Committee’s path-breaking report of 2004. The Government are proposing measures to get rid of unfairness in admissions as set out in new clause 14 and
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Government-commissioned research suggests that they should be considering removing the ability to select a proportion of pupils by aptitude. There is now a growing consensus that this is a big issue in the schools system and that it can lead to social segregation, as shown in the Government’s own research as well as that by the Select Committee.

Even policy groups associated with the right in British politics have begun to criticise this aspect of selection. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the paper by the Policy Exchange, which I believe is a think-tank quite closely associated with the Conservative party. It published a paper entitled “Helping Schools to Succeed” at the beginning of this year. Its recommendation 21 is to end the practice of selection by aptitude at all state-funded schools. I know that we shall come on to debate some of the wider issues of selection by ability in a few moments.

Michael Gove: Purely for the benefit of the House, I would like to say that I used to be chairman of Policy Exchange, but before it enjoyed its current level of success, which post-dated my departure. I did not write that report. Although it has many good things in it, it contains one or two recommendations that we do not endorse—and what the hon. Gentleman mentioned is one of them.

Mr. Laws: There are also one or two Conservative policies that are not endorsed in this paper, but I may be steering rather wide of the new clauses before us. I was not attempting to draw the hon. Gentleman, as Conservative spokesman, into responsibility for this paper; I was merely pointing out that issues about selection, admissions and social segregation within the schools system are shared across the political divide.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): If the hon. Gentleman’s thesis about social segregation is right, how does he account for Mossbourne community academy, where 50 per cent. of the intake qualify for free school meals? It is in the most deprived part of Hackney, yet it is on target to achieve 80 per cent. of children getting five or more GCSEs, including English and maths, and has a truly comprehensive intake. How does it achieve that with all its social problems?

6 pm

Mr. Laws: In fairness, I said that it is right—I very much agree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath—that individual schools are capable of performing outside their social intake with strong leadership and good education. However, anyone who denies that there is a strong correlation between the social intake of a school and its results has only to look at the parliamentary answers that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is getting back from the Government, which show in the starkest terms the link between social class and educational performance. Although it may be true that some of those schools suffer from the inability to attract high-quality school leadership, given the tough conditions that they face, it is difficult to argue that the big gaps in performance are simply due to the effectiveness of the teaching rather than the social composition of the schools, which has a powerful influence even though individual schools can clearly perform far better, or in some cases far worse, than their social catchment would indicate.

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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Perhaps I can throw some light on the previous intervention. I will not comment on the academy mentioned, because I have never been there or studied it, but what is important—I have seen this in the selection process of some academies—is which children with free school meals the school takes in. If, for example, it takes in children with free school meals who have supportive parents who come to several evening meetings and a Saturday meeting before they apply to enter the academy, it will get a certain type of child with free school meals. The parents of children with free school meals who come from dysfunctional families will not come to three evening meetings and a Saturday meeting before filling in the application form for the academy.

Mr. Laws: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, although not one, as he knows from our earlier conversations, that I entirely agree with, because most of the evidence for most of the academies shows that they are selecting a deprived intake, often more deprived even than their local catchment area.

Paul Holmes: As my hon. Friend says, we disagree on this. Academies that take over from failing schools will inherit those deprived catchment areas. The question is what academies will be like two, five or 10 years down the line. Most have been in existence for too short a time to tell, but city technology colleges, which were academies under another name and set up by a previous Government, have been around for a long time. The evidence is that they select enormously.

Mr. Laws: I think that my hon. Friend is strongly supporting my point about getting rid of covert—or overt—mechanisms to select by aptitude and ability. In the case of the city technology colleges set up by the Conservatives, I suspect that the evidence indicates that many of them were not set up in deprived catchment zones from the very beginning. The free school meal percentage for many of them is extraordinarily low. However, I share his view that we must ensure, both through this mechanism and the way in which banding is used, that we do not allow any school simply to improve its performance by changing its intake. That is important if the academy programme is to prove itself.

If I cannot persuade the Government to accept new clause 18, I hope that we will divide on the issue later. It is important. It clearly has not been dealt with by new clause 14, and the recommendation was in the Select Committee report. Although it is welcome that the Government have caught up with its recommendations of four years ago on unfair admissions, they have not caught up on the issue of selection by aptitude. That is why we have tabled new clause 18.

Dr. Ladyman: I shall not detain the House for long because it has heard my views on the subject on numerous occasions, but I shall continue to bang away at it until something is done.

I fully support what the Government are attempting to do. The rules on admissions procedures are difficult to understand and lead to many anomalies and controversies in local areas. Schools are obviously trying to get around the existing set of rules in some cases and suffering as a consequence in others. The Government
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have acted correctly in trying to set out rules that will govern admissions procedures around the country. I have no problem if, in doing that, they followed recommendations of the Select Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said. All I ask is that that same fairness—the same set of criteria—be applied to the children of my constituency in South Thanet.

South Thanet is in Kent, and in Kent the educational reforms of the past 50 years have effectively not happened. We still have exactly the same education system as we had in the 1960s when the then Labour Government started to legislate to create comprehensives. We have grammar schools on the one hand and secondary moderns on the other. The county council can call the secondary moderns high schools and non-selective schools to its heart’s content, but they are, in effect, secondary modern schools.

The situation has improved slightly in recent years as the result of the creation of academies that are genuinely determined to create a comprehensive ethos. One or two schools have tried to do that, but we cannot create a genuine comprehensive school in a selective area. The two do not work together. The simple fact of the matter is that most parents in my constituency believe that the grammar schools are better than the secondary moderns. I take a different view. The grammar schools in my constituency—there are four of them—are very good. I have no criticism of them as schools; I just do not believe that the children who attend them do as well as they would if they were to attend genuine comprehensive schools in a setting that can support their individual strengths and weaknesses and give them access to a wider curriculum. That is my personal view. I do not want to impose it on all the parents in my constituency. I genuinely believe that the Government are right to say that we should get rid of selection in a selective area only by holding a referendum; I just want to have the referendum.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who has tabled new clause 20, would I think argue—he will speak for himself in a moment if he manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—that the simple fact of the matter is that we are not going to get referendums to abolish selection, so it should be abolished, full stop. He does not want to put me, for the first time in my political career, into the Lobby to vote against my Government. I certainly do not want to have to do that, and I hope not to have to support his new clause. The thing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can say to me that will stop me doing that is that he recognises the problems of selective areas, will look at the rules that govern whether an area such as Kent can have a referendum, and will ensure that they are fair and that it is practical to have them.

The rules as they stand would require me and people like me who share my views to get together a petition of more than 44,000 people, because the rules say that it is necessary to get a proportion of the entire county, covering all the feeder schools and the secondary schools. That is not based on a catchment area around a single school, as it is in some parts of the country. We would need to get 44,000 signatures on a petition. Each entry would have to include the name of the person signing the petition, the name of the child, the school
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that the child attends, the relationship of the person signing the petition to that child, that person’s name and address, and the name and address of the child. All of that information has to be obtained for every one of the 44,000 people and all of it has to be provided in a vacuum, because the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998 prevent people from getting access to the names of all the people who are entitled to sign the petition.

Rob Marris: I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but does he share mine? My understanding of the rules is that, apart from parents of pupils and prospective pupils, the taxpayers in the area who are funding the schools will not even be given a say. I consider that outrageous.

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend is right: that is exactly the position. Constituents of mine may be sitting at home now planning to start families and, for that reason, worrying about the state of their local schools, but they will have no vote. Others with young children who are not yet old enough to attend one of the feeder schools, but who will certainly attend one in the next few years, will not be able to sign the petition. It is impossible to know which of the 2 million people who live in Kent will be entitled to sign it.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we need referendums to avoid selection, but he must give me a fair chance to go out and convince my constituents that they should sign a petition—and even after 44,000 signatures have been obtained, the referendum will still have to be organised. All I ask is for my right hon. Friend, if he does not want me to support new clause 18, to assure me that he will look at the rules and make it at least conceivable that referendums can be held in areas such as Kent, so that their schools can be brought within the family that will be created by new clause 14 and benefit from the excellent work that he has done in trying to improve admissions procedures.

One issue that will remain in Kent if the 11-plus continues, either with or without a referendum, is the expression of preference. The county council and those who support grammar schools want pupils to make their choices when they know whether they have passed the 11-plus. That means that those who pass are given first choice of grammar school, while those who fail are given first choice of another school. It prevents the other schools—academies such as the wonderful Marlowe academy in Ramsgate, in which the Government have invested such huge amounts—from creating a genuinely comprehensive ethos, because there is no way of ensuring that the parents and children who are given first choice of that school are genuinely committed to comprehensive education.

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