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Some of us do believe in comprehensive education. I did not put my children through the selective system because I do not believe in it, and there are other parents like me out there. I should have thought that we should be given preference when it comes to selecting schools that genuinely want to adopt a comprehensive structure, but we are given no such preference, because the county council wants to fiddle the selection
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procedure so that those who want to attend grammar schools are effectively given two first choices. New clause 14 will give the adjudicator power to stop that, and to make clear rules giving people an opportunity to build genuine comprehensive schools in my area.

I fully support what the Government are doing. I merely ask them to show some sympathy in the framing of the rules for the ballot on selection, and to offer my constituents a reasonable prospect that they will be free to choose how they want education to develop in Kent at some point in the future.

Paul Holmes: I welcome the thrust of what the Government are trying to achieve in new clause 14. I have been a member of what was the Education and Skills Committee and is now the Select Committee on Children, Families and Schools for nearly all the past seven years, and I played a small part in the writing of the 2004 report on admissions, which has been mentioned a number of times. The report helped to prompt the Government to improve admission procedures, which they now intend to improve further to prevent them from being exploited for purposes of covert selection.

6.15 pm

Over the years, partly as a result of our current inquiry into diversity in schools, the Select Committee has received copious academic research evidence on the effects of overt and covert selection and the way in which it boosts some schools at the expense of the majority. I disagree with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who seemed to suggest that we should ignore all evidence of the negative effects of selection of various kinds and pretend that it makes no real difference, because what matters above all else is the ethos of the school. There is, of course, the ethos of the sink school. The most famous, of which everyone has heard, is the Ridings school.

Someone who knows Halifax extremely well is Alice Mahon, who was Member of Parliament for Halifax until she retired at the 2005 election. Writing in the Yorkshire Post in March, she pointed out that Halifax had eight secondary schools: two grammars that cream off the top 20, 30, or 40 per cent. of the ability range, two faith schools that select in a different way, and four “ordinary schools” to take the rest of the pupils. For whatever reason, over the years the Ridings fell to the bottom of the pecking order. Its ethos was that of the sink school. I know that that is not a term that we are encouraged to use nowadays, although it was in common usage when I started teaching in 1979, but the fact that it is frowned on does not alter the fact that such schools exist. There are schools that lose out badly because of the effects of both covert and overt selection. We see that on a county-wide basis in places such as Kent and Lincolnshire, where the grammar school system still reigns.

Although new clause 14 is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough, for two reasons. First, it leaves academies out of the equation. That is why I support new clause 18, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and why I tabled amendments (a) to (n) thereto, along with the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). I simply cannot understand why academies should be free to use covert methods of selection, some of which
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the Secretary of State described a few weeks ago when he talked about the abuse of admissions procedures, while other schools in the state system are not.

Ed Balls: The reports from local authorities to the schools adjudicator will apply to all maintained schools, including academies, and all academies are required to comply fully with the admissions code. It is true that that is done through the foundation agreement rather than through statute—a point that I am sure will be raised later—but no academy is free from scrutiny or an obligation to comply. That will be part of the reporting process under new clause 14.

Paul Holmes: None the less, many people see a need to tighten up the system to make clear its absolute application to academies. I gave some examples earlier of the way in which they can play the system. I saw something similar in a free school in Stockholm, which is currently a favoured topic of conversation in some quarters. Although there is a ban on selective admission procedures in Sweden, those wishing to get into the school had to attend seven meetings with their parents—five in the evenings and two lasting throughout two Saturdays—before they could even put their names down. Pregnant mothers already had their unborn children’s names on the waiting list for a school with “non-selective” intake policies. Some academies in this country have similar admissions procedures.

I have never been able to understand why academies should be outside the system, just as I have never understood why they should enjoy freedom from Government diktat on curriculums. Why cannot state schools and their heads have the same freedom? I should like to give all state schools the same freedoms as academies, while also imposing on all schools the restrictions on abuse of admissions procedures proposed in new clause 14.

The other reason why new clause 14 does not go far enough is that it leaves out schools that select, directly and openly, on the basis of ability. That is why the hon. Member for Bury, North and I tabled new clauses 20, 21 and 22. Before anyone intervenes to ask, let me say that I am not speaking for the Liberal Democrats; my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil does that from the Front Bench, and those who have questions should address them to him. I am a mere Back Bencher, elected by my constituents to represent them, and I base my views on 22 years of working in three non-selective schools in the state system. I am also basing my views on having sent all three of my children to non-selective state schools in my neighbourhood in Chesterfield, as well as on having spent seven years on the Select Committee in both its incarnations, studying extensively the evidence in both this country and other countries.

I thought—I say this with my tongue slightly in my cheek—that there was cross-party agreement on the insidious effects of selection by ability. The current admission arrangements in which the 11-plus operates, to which the new clause applies, determine a child’s future at age 11 on the basis of a couple of short, simple tests that are no longer relevant to today’s needs. They distort the primary school curriculum. Those who can afford to do so pay for extra coaching. They constitute a high-stakes process that puts unacceptable
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pressure and anxiety on pupils, parents and teachers. The result is a system that leaves the majority of pupils being perceived, and perceiving themselves, as failures at the age of 11. Also, rather than providing a ladder out of disadvantage, there is significant bias against the less well-off in the test results, which is compounded later in public examinations.

Before anyone asks, let me say that that is not me speaking; it is a direct quote from a Minister, Lord Rooker, on July 10 2006, when he introduced the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. I am old enough to have been part of the 11-plus generation, and I saw what happened to families when one sibling passed and one sibling failed. That changed their lives for the whole of their lives. Their relationship became one of success and relative failure, and it should not be like that.

Paul Holmes: I agree absolutely. When Lord Rooker made that statement in the other place in introducing legislation to end grammar schools and the 11-plus in Northern Ireland, he went on to say:

I am at a loss to understand why that same principle should not apply in England, if it is good enough to apply in Northern Ireland, and that is the Government’s view.

A former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), told the Labour party’s Manchester conference on 28 September 2006:

I ask again, if that is good enough for Northern Ireland—or any other party of the UK—why is it not good enough for England? After all, that was a member of the same Government speaking. Another Labour Member said in a Commons debate on the same order that the Government were committed to ending selection, because they believe it disadvantages those individuals who are not selected. If the Government believe that in Northern Ireland, why do they not believe it in England—in Kent, Lincolnshire and elsewhere?

The Conservative party had a far-sighted shadow Education Secretary, who believed in an evidence-based research policy. He researched deeply into the subject and made an excellent speech last year based on that research. The speech was delivered to the CBI, and in it, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said:

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Not that I believe that it ever was. One of the seminal works on the topic, published in the 1950s, “Education and the Working Class” by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden, studied every child in Huddersfield in one year who was going to grammar school. They pinpointed on the map exactly which streets the children came from, and found that whole swathes of the poor areas of town sent almost nobody to grammar school. That belief was therefore revealed as a myth 50 years ago, and it was a central part of teaching when I was at university. I do not know why there is still this myth that selection is the ladder up for the poor.

The hon. Member for Havant went on to say that the idea that selection transforms the life chances of bright, poor kids

He was so far-sighted, so visionary, so much based in the realities of research and policy-based evidence, that he got sacked and replaced.

Dr. Ladyman: I just want to refer the hon. Gentleman to the research to which I earlier referred a Conservative Front Bencher. Professor Jesson has compared the performance of cohorts going through the two distinct educational systems of selection and non-selection. He has clearly demonstrated that the brightest 2 or 3 per cent. do equally well in both systems—equally well, not better in the grammar school system—but that all the remaining children do on average one GCSE grade better in a comprehensive system than they do in a selective system, and that includes many of the very brightest.

Paul Holmes: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That point can also be seen on an international scale. The PISA—programme for international student assessment—studies look at the OECD countries, which have comparable western-style economies. I think three studies in that sequence have been conducted now. All of them show that the more comprehensive the school system is—as in Finland, which tops the league tables every time—the better the whole cohort of the school population does, whereas the more selective systems tend to sink down to the middle of the performance table, although the amount of money that is spent has to be allowed for, too. The PISA studies have specifically cited countries such as Germany, the UK and the USA, where there are wide variations of selection in the system, because while selection is undoubtedly good for the 10, 20 or 30 per cent. who are selected and taken into the elite schools, it has a very negative, downward effect on the vast majority of our pupils who are left out. I entered into politics to try to improve the life chances of everybody, not of a selected elite minority.

Kelvin Hopkins: I was one of those—the chosen few—who was selected in 1952. One of the things we noticed at the time was that class sizes in grammar schools were much smaller than in secondary modern schools, so we had even better chances.

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Paul Holmes: That is a valid point, and one could make it again with reference to other areas. The Select Committee recently heard evidence from a former rear-admiral who now heads a group for public schools. He told us that what mattered is ethos. I said that Lord Adonis had said we should get the DNA of grammar schools and public schools and transfer it to the rest of the sector, and asked what was the DNA that was so good for this ethos. Was it the fact that those schools spent twice as much per pupil, that their class sizes were half that in the state system, that the teachers were paid more and had longer holidays, and that they selected only bright kids and they could get rid of any problem kid, or was it something else to do with the ethos? I think that question answers itself.

As I have mentioned, I thought that the Government were absolutely committed to addressing selection as a result of what they said about it, and the action they have taken on it in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives certainly were committed to that, until their research-based and visionary spokesman was sacked for stating the obvious based on that research.

I have to address my own party, too. My party leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), said on January 29 that

I have to ask the same question, however: why does that sentence not conclude with the additional statement, “and grammar schools”, because they are clearly the biggest problem in terms of overt selection in this country? They are the elephant in the room that the Government and the Conservatives ignore—as do others.

I thought there was cross-party agreement on this issue, but the key is how we push towards the final goal. Perhaps we should be happy. We know that politics is the art of the possible, and that we get incremental improvements. Under the previous Prime Minister, it was difficult to get this Government to admit that there was any problem on admissions. Things have been moving forward much more rapidly since the change of Prime Minister last year, so we can hope, and new clause 14 goes some way in the right direction. With amendments such as new clause 18 and the amendments standing in the name of the hon. Member for Bury, North and myself, things would move a bit further, but the elephant in the room is the issue that new clauses 20, 21 and 22 address—the outright, open, overt selection by ability that privileges a small elite in the grammar schools and penalises the large majority in the secondary moderns, which, whether they are called comprehensives, community schools or academies, are indeed secondary moderns in that situation.

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) spoke powerfully on the issue of selective admissions policies, which is at the heart of some of the amendments that I have tabled in this group.

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I wish to speak specifically in support of new clause 14, the other Government proposals and my amendments to new clause 14—amendments (a) to (n)—which would strengthen it. Since he started in his post, the Secretary of State’s record on tackling the difficult issue of school admission policies is exemplary. It was necessary to take a tough line with some schools that may have been abusing the system to ensure that the issue remained at the forefront of public concern. Every parent and head teacher in the country knows that for many years most schools have done their utmost to manipulate the existing admissions system to their advantage. I do not believe that most head teachers want to do that, and I certainly do not think that most parents want to have to lie, cheat and deceive to get their children into the school of their choice, but those are responses to the situation in which they find themselves. The House owes a debt of gratitude to the Secretary of State for taking the line that he did on this issue.

6.30 pm

The Secretary of State will also recall that the code of practice on school admissions was central to the debate on the Education and Inspections Bill in 2006. The House eventually agreed that if there was to be a freeing-up of the supply of schools and of the power of individual schools to run their own affairs, that had to be balanced by a tougher school admissions code of practice. One of the key issues was the legal responsibility of schools to comply with the code of practice. Under the old code, schools merely had to have regard to the code’s requirements, but we were able to change that arrangement in the 2006 Bill and make it clear that schools had to comply with the code’s requirements.

However, there was always a question mark over the freedom of academies. I am completely in favour of schools having the capacity to innovate, and I support, and am enthusiastic about, the academy programme. If that programme is to continue to thrive, flourish and maintain public support, it must be based on a level playing field. Any hint or suggestion that academies receive special treatment on admissions policies must be dealt with; such is the purpose of my amendments (a) to (m), which would amend new clause 14. They would ensure that the provisions that apply to all maintained schools should also apply to academies, so that there is a level playing field on admissions.

Amendment (n) is slightly different from those provisions, because it seeks to deal with the welcome new requirement in new clause 14 for local education authorities to report to the adjudicator. That requirement returns the role of LEAs to the position in which they should always have been, because they will have this important co-ordinating function on school admissions. The amendment picks up on the other important development in the 2006 Bill, which gave admissions forums the power to prepare a report to the schools commissioner. Interestingly, the Department’s website contains guidance to admissions forums as to how they should prepare their annual report to the schools commissioner. The wording of the amendment would require the report to include

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