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13 May 2008 : Column 1264

All those requirements are now on the admissions forum. The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that those criteria are also included in the report that must be made by the LEA to the schools adjudicator.

I apologise if that is complex, but it is complex because two bodies are being required to make two separate reports. The admissions forum is required to make a report to the schools commissioner and the local authority must make one to the adjudicator. Perhaps, in time, those two separate reports should be merged into one, but if that is done, it is important that the criteria listed in the amendment relating to the ethnic and social mix of pupils attending schools, the number of appeals made and the number of first, second and third preferences are included in that report.

I turn specifically to new clauses 19, 20, 21 and 22, because they deal with the issue of selection by ability. I do not want to go over the ground and the arguments that have been well covered by the hon. Member for Chesterfield and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet. I simply wish to say that the evidence on the effect of selection by ability at too early a stage in an education system has been well documented, not just this past year, the previous one or during the past decade, but for 50 years. The evidence from the United Kingdom and across the world shows that systems that select at too early a stage have the lower level of achievement overall and the biggest gap between higher achieving students and lower achieving students.

There is no shortage of evidence on the matter, and last year, we almost reached the position of having all-party agreement in this House. Significantly, today’s debate takes place almost 12 months to the day that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) made his speech to the CBI, and I was delighted that the hon. Member for Chesterfield quoted that speech. I was intending to cite it again, despite the fact that I have read it into the record on at least one previous occasion in this House, because it was a most important speech.

On 16 May 2007, we were on the edge of having all-party consensus and recognition of what the evidence from half a century’s educational research in this country and in countries across the world said: that academic selection at too early a stage destroys the opportunities of large numbers of young people and holds back overall levels of achievement.

Kelvin Hopkins: I know that my hon. Friend will be aware of OECD statistics that suggest that the gap between the highest achievers and the lowest achievers in Britain is very large. That reinforces the social divisions that so bedevil our country and if we do not deal with that gap, we will continue to have the kind of frictions from which we have always suffered.

Mr. Chaytor: That is right, and that point was finally recognised last year in the then shadow Secretary of State’s speech. It was reiterated earlier this year in the Department’s own research on the admissions system for 2006, which was conducted by Sheffield Hallam university. Reference has been made to that.

The difficulty is that if we almost have consensus, how can we move forward? We have to work just a little bit harder on the current shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), his colleagues and the Conservative party, and we must
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test out some of their arguments and assumptions. Although he spent 25 minutes discussing an argument that took place four months ago and not addressing new clause 14, the hon. Gentleman did say something about the context in which he was approaching the Bill and the issue of fair school admissions. The difficulty is that in trying to extricate themselves from the policy that they almost had 12 months ago, the Conservatives are now posing a false antithesis. They are saying that the Government’s desire to ensure fairer admissions within the available school places is somehow at odds with the desire to get more good school places. To get a thriving education system, we need both. We absolutely need fair admissions policies, but we need to continue the process of ensuring that every school is a good school.

It is not good enough to say, “The solution to the problem is nothing to do with fair admissions; it is all about getting more good school places.” That raises the question, “What is a good school place?” Far too often, the official Opposition define a good school as one with a high proportion of highly able and motivated children. That is a completely distorted approach. The Opposition are locked into a circle of misconception that a good school is a school with a high proportion of such pupils. Therefore, not all schools can be good schools.

It seems to me that one or two basic principles should underline the Government’s approach—any Government’s approach.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman define, in his own words, what he regards as a good school? What qualifies a school as a good school?

Mr. Chaytor: I would be inclined to repeat some of the criteria that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred to earlier, but, to give the briefest possible definition, I would say a school that maximised the potential of the greatest number of its children and did most for their well-being and long-term future. However, that is not central to the issue.

We could all play around with our individual definitions, and I think we would all probably be in the same area in what defined a good school, but we must challenge the notion that a good school is one that happens to have a high proportion of able and motivated children. Conversely, we must challenge the notion that any school with a low percentage pass rate for those gaining five A to C grades at GCSE is necessarily failing. Too often—previous speakers emphasised this point—the good school and the failing school are, in our most selective areas, located next door to one another.

Paul Holmes: I risk prolonging the debate on what is a good school—the hon. Gentleman’s definition is admirable—but is not the Conservative party, since sacking the previous shadow Secretary of State, getting locked back into this loop of privilege: a good school is only a school with lots of high achieving, very able pupils? That is rather like the rear admiral representing the private sector who, in response to the hon. Gentleman during questioning at the Select Committee recently,
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said, “Well, there are only so many excellent teachers and excellent pupils.” The corollary was, “And they are all in the private schools where people pay £28,000 a year to send their kids.”

Mr. Chaytor: I think that is right. Paradoxically, it is in the interests of the Opposition to drop this archaic prejudice about the structure of secondary education. If they are genuinely trying to reinvent themselves as a party that represents the majority of the population of the United Kingdom, they cannot afford to hang on to their hang ups.

I have to admit that I struggle to work out the difference between shiny new compassionate conservatism and the old, nasty reactionary conservatism. Frankly, in the education policy that Conservative Members have espoused today, there is no difference.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s lecture on modernity, but given what he has said so far, does he think that the Government have been wrong to concentrate on standards rather than structures over the last 10 years? That has certainly been their mission. Have they been wrong in that mission, because he seems rather preoccupied with structures?

Mr. Chaytor: The Government, in 2006, explicitly accepted that they were turning their attention to structures. The issue is that anybody with any experience of the state education system would appreciate that standards and structures are closely related. We might argue about the extent and depth of the relationship, and its exact nature, but they are closely related.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am extremely lucky. In Ribble Valley, I have one grammar school, which is excellent, and several non-grammar schools, which are excellent. They are all excellent schools. I am following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and I assume from the passion with which he is speaking that he has spoken about this with his Front Benchers. I also assume that we will enjoy a Division at the end of the debate.

6.45 pm

Mr. Chaytor: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but I would rather continue with my argument for the moment.

The issue this, what should be the underlying principle of a state secondary school system? Two points, above all, should be at the heart of that matter. There is now a consensus that we want parents to be able to choose schools, not schools to be able to choose parents. Unfortunately, the official Opposition have not worked through the logic of that statement, because they still support schools—wholly selective, partly selective, quasi-selective—choosing pupils.

My argument is, first, let us agree that we really want parents to be able to choose schools and, secondly, let us accept that the fact that children are intellectually differentiated does not mean that they have to be socially segregated. It is in the interests of all those children and in the national interest that we do not build barriers at too early an age between children who come from different social backgrounds and who have different intellectual capacities.

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If we can accept that we want to base the system on real, not phoney, parental choice and that it is in the national interest that children of all backgrounds are brought up together, we can move forward. That leads us inexorably to the point of view that selection by ability in secondary schools is not serving the national interest or the interests of the overwhelming majority of children.

Moving quickly and specifically to the amendments, I shall not spend long on new clause 18. Although I am sympathetic to the argument on selection by aptitude, and although in 2004 and afterwards I spent time trying to get the Government to define “aptitude”, in one sense it is almost a distraction to focus entirely on aptitude. The new clause is also a contradiction in a way, but if the argument is that selection by aptitude should be abolished because “aptitude” is a proxy for “ability”, why does the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), not deal with the question of selection by ability? I see little point in dealing with the proxy rather than the substance. My proposal deals with both together.

My second point on new clause 18 is that it does not do the job in that it will not amend legislation suitably and appropriately. It is a bit of gesture politics and it has served to raise the issue for debate, but it is not a serious proposal.

My new clauses 19 to 22 offer a spectrum of ways to deal with the question of selection by ability. That spectrum goes from the easiest way—it would start the process of change—in new clause 19 to the big bang solution in new clause 22. New clause 19 would turn on its head the assumption that has underpinned all school admission policies since the Education Act 1980—since the days of Keith Joseph. For the last quarter of a century and more, the assumption that has driven all Government policy is that most parents want to avoid their local school. All Governments’ admissions policies, all the incentives in the system and all the regulations have encouraged and made it easier for parents to send their children to other schools and move further away from their local school. We all know the background and context to that and we all know that a number of parents—not a majority, but a significant minority—do not wish, for whatever reason, their child to attend the local school.

My argument is that there is an equally significant minority of parents who want their child to attend the nearest school, but they are not allowed in because that school is selective—either wholly or partially by ability, partially by aptitude, by faith or by a variety of quasi-selective devices. One of the easiest changes to the code of practice on school admissions and to primary legislation would be to guarantee that parents had an absolute right to send their child to the nearest school, whatever the designation of that school. We would be putting parental choice at the heart of the system and not allowing the specific admissions policies of an individual school to keep out children who live on its doorstep. That would have implications for wholly selective schools and for some of the partially selective schools, as well as for some faith schools. However—this is again a response to the shadow Secretary of State’s opening remarks—all the major religious groups, as I understand it, are taking part in a lively debate about the balance between inclusive and exclusive admissions policies. In the Church
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of England and the Roman Catholic Church, many people at the most senior levels feel passionately that their faith schools should operate inclusive admissions policies rather than seek to keep children out. The debate will continue, and I hope that the Government will maintain a close dialogue with the major faith groups to encourage the adoption of more inclusive policies.

New clause 19 is the ultimate inclusive policy and would allow a parent who lived near a selective school, which was their nearest school, to have the automatic right to send their child to that school.

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and he has been a doughty campaigner on the issue for many years, for which I pay tribute to him. I am concerned that if new clause 19 was accepted and new clause 20 was not, we would find that, in constituencies such as mine, all the middle-class parents who live close to the middle-class schools could send their kids there while the working-class parents on the working class estates would essentially find themselves with no choice other than to send their child to the closest school, which was what used to be called a sink school.

Mr. Chaytor: It is true that this system could have different effects in different parts of the country. However, the fact remains that in many of the selective local authorities in this country—quite apart from many of our leading quasi-selective schools and faith schools—such schools are located in areas of great deprivation. It is a national scandal that some of the poorest children living in the poorest neighbourhoods have to be bused out of those neighbourhoods because of the admissions policies of some of our most privileged schools. I fully understand the difficulties, and the system would operate differently in different parts of the country.

New clause 20 takes on board the Government policy on selection, but gives it a slight twist. It maintains the ballot system and says nothing about the fairness of the ballot regulations, which we would condemn from the rooftops had they been invented by Robert Mugabe. The new clause accepts that the ballot should stay but requires the Government to change the default position of the ballot. Selection by ability and aptitude would be abolished, but the ballot procedure would stay so that parents could opt to reverse it if they chose to do so. In Thanet, for example, Government policy would abolish selection but if the good citizens of Thanet wanted to reverse that, they would have the opportunity to do so through a ballot.

Dr. Ladyman: That would presumably mean that they would have to collect 44,000 signatures in the arcane way that has been defined. My hon. Friend is on to something here.

Mr. Chaytor: I will leave the exact number of signatures required and the exact rules of the ballot to the imagination, as there is no reference to them in new clause 20.

New clause 21, moving along the spectrum, deals with the issue in a different way. Whereas in new clause 19 I tried to reverse the assumption that all parents want to avoid their local school by building in
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an assumption that many parents want their children to attend their nearest school, in new clause 21 I try to shift the focus of debate from the choice between selection and non-selection to the age at which selection takes place and the interface between selection and choice. New clause 21 reiterates the case that selection by ability is completely unacceptable, for the reasons outlined earlier, but says that there comes a point in the education system at which children have to choose which curriculum they will follow.

Few people in the House would challenge the notion that selection takes place when people enter a university—there clearly has to be a selective process for a degree course. Many people would accept that there needs to be a form of selection at the age of 16, as people move on to level 3 education. An absolutely fascinating question concerns the implication of the emergence of the 14 to 19 curriculum and the development of diplomas for selection by ability. Another fascinating question concerns the role of an institution in choosing which pupils should be admitted to a diploma programme and the role of an individual pupil, with the support and advice of their teacher and their parent, in deciding which programme they want to progress to.

New clause 21 reiterates the inappropriateness of selection by ability at the age of 11, but accepts that at a certain stage of a young person’s progress through the system some selection takes place. It emphasises that it is far better if children and young people can choose the curriculum that they want to follow, on the advice of their teachers and parents, rather than having an arbitrary institutional decision made to keep them out of an educational establishment.

Finally, new clause 22 is the big bang solution. It asks why on earth the Government do not just get on with it and legislate against selection by ability at the age of 11, as Harold Wilson did 42 years ago.

Ed Balls: We have had a wide-ranging debate on a number of issues to do with admissions. A great deal of passion, as well as experience and knowledge, was displayed by Members from all parties. I want to try to address a number of points that were made by going through the individual amendments and clauses. I shall try to do so as fast as possible to see whether we can progress to the next group of amendments before we have to move on.

I shall turn to the issue of principle about new clause 14 at the end, but I started by saying that we wanted consensus on the importance of fair admissions, and on the importance of providing opportunity and excellence for all through such fair admissions. It seemed that there was consensus in favour of taking forward the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report and of ensuring that the admissions code was properly implemented and strengthened. That consensus stretched across both sides of the House, but seemed to exclude the Opposition Front Benchers.

I shall come back to the issue of faith schools when I talk about the individual amendments, but my impression was that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) was saying that he was in favour of an admissions code in principle, but not a code that is
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implemented, that has any substance and that backs parents who want a fair chance to get their children into schools—or at least not if the code ends up being contrary to the views of what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) called the “proprietor” and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred to as the “individual governors”. It was most revealing that at no point did the hon. Gentleman refer to parents or to the parents and children who do not get into a school because they choose not to apply, having been deterred by the way admissions policies were set. That was very revealing.

I shall come back to new clause 14, but first I shall talk about some of the amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) referred to amendments (a) to (n) to new clause 14. They both argued in different ways that we should not have a special set of arrangements on admissions for academies that exclude them or let them off the hook when it comes to fair admissions. My answer to that is that we have different legal arrangements for academies, but not special arrangements. We do not intend to allow any form of selection for academies, by either the front or back door, that goes outside the admissions code.

It is true that we do not legislate for academies in the same way that we legislate for maintained schools. The obligations placed on academies are contained in their funding agreements, rather than directly in primary legislation. However, I assure hon. Members again that the funding agreements for all academies require their admissions arrangements to be in accordance with admissions law. The provisions of the school admissions code apply to academies just as they do to maintained schools.

The study that we conducted in three local authority areas was both revealing and interesting, in that it showed that all admissions to the academies in those areas were fully compliant with the admissions code. The academies know clearly what their admissions policies need to be. After discussions with the Department, they have made sure that they have fair admissions, in compliance with the code.

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