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7 pm

Paul Holmes: The evidence that the Select Committee has looked at—for example that from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which did research for the Government, and from Professor Stephen Gorard—showed that the longer academies are open, the fewer children with free school meals or special educational needs they take; moreover, the prior educational attainment of ESN pupils rises, and four times as many kids are expelled. Does the Secretary of State agree that the picture is not quite as rosy as the one he is painting?

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman is pointing to the fact that with academies, we are trying to achieve truly comprehensive admissions. We talked about the Mossbourne academy earlier, and it is true that many try to do that through a banded admissions system. However, whatever method is used, the aim is truly comprehensive admissions in academies. One would expect there to be some change over time, but academies
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are still disproportionately to be found in areas where family incomes are below average, and more children in the intake get free school meals than the catchment area would suggest.

The evidence shows that the academies represent a progressive policy that is delivering educational opportunity for children in disadvantaged areas and from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is a good example of fair admissions in practice. That is why the amendments, which would change the legal basis of the Government’s relationship with academies but nothing at all in respect of their admissions policy, are neither necessary nor desirable.

Mr. Chaytor rose—

Paul Holmes rose—

Ed Balls: I give way to the hon. Member for Chesterfield.

Paul Holmes: I said earlier that it was too early to make a judgment about academies, as they are still fairly new. However, city technology colleges are academies under another name; they have been around a long time and they certainly support the evidence about increasing selection. Professor Gorard told the Select Committee about one academy that was founded in 2002—one of the first. More than 50 per cent. of students were on free school meals, and that was clearly way over the level from the area that it should have had, but that proportion has fallen to 12 per cent., which is way under.

Ed Balls: I and my Department are determined to keep the evidence on academies under review, to make sure that they are delivering the purpose for which they have been set up—that is, as I said earlier, educational excellence in areas that previously had too often been denied it. However, CTCs were the policy of the previous Conservative Government, not this one. They were not driven by the aim of extending opportunity into disadvantaged communities, and the evidence about them is as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I feel no need to defend CTCs, but I am happy to defend academies.

I turn now to amendments (m) and (n). New clause 14 makes it clear that we want to require local authorities to make public reports on each school to the schools adjudicator. We believe that having that information in public, for people to see, is the right way to ensure compliance with the admissions code.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North noted, school admissions forums can choose to have an annual report, and in our consultation on the regulations that follow from the new clause we will look very carefully at the content, form and timing of those reports and at their relationship to school admissions forums. We will consult on that in the summer, and we will also consult in detail on what the content of the reports should be. I do not think that it is right, as amendment (n) proposes, to specify that in primary legislation, but I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be a full and detailed consultation on what should be in the reports to the schools adjudicator. By the time those reports are complied, we will have had experience with local authorities around the country that have been asked to provide reports to the schools adjudicator
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for this year, in advance of the regulations. On the basis of that evidence, we will be able to see what we need to do in the regulations for next year. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to withdraw amendments (m) and (n).

I deal now with new clauses 18, 20, 21 and 22. Earlier we had an important and lengthy debate about grammar schools. I understand that there are strong views on both sides of the argument about grammar schools among MPs who represent Kent and the other parts of the country where selection still operates. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) has a long-standing commitment to his argument, and a very great deal of knowledge, so I listened very carefully to what he, and the hon. Member for Chesterfield, had to say.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is Minister for the South East, visited three secondary modern or non-grammar schools in Kent. We saw how they were using the Building Schools for the Future programme to deliver a culture of rising standards of aspiration and excellence.

Dr. Ladyman: I entirely agree that many of the schools that I refer to as secondary moderns in Kent are absolutely excellent, and I said as much in my contribution. My right hon. Friend is making available to Kent £3 billion through the Building Schools for the Future programme—the most magnificent opportunity to rebuild the county’s secondary education that we will see in our lifetimes. However, Kent county council is being allowed to spend the money on locking selection into the structure. Does he not think that that is a bit odd?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is right to point to the great educational opportunity that arises from the huge Building Schools for the Future investment. I am sure that he is aware of Opposition proposals to cut £4.5 billion in provision for constituencies across the country, although we do not yet know which of the six new schools in Crewe and Nantwich would be lost if those proposals were allowed to be taken forward. However, I agree it is important that we ensure that we get the best educational value from that money and investment.

We on this side of the House are clear that we oppose selection by ability. The Government have put in place provisions to ensure that banding or selection for school sixth forms are the only conditions under which selection by ability should ever occur. That is clearly consistent with the schools admissions code, and we are committed to ensuring that all maintained schools comply with that code.

We are clear that there will be no new academic selection. We reaffirmed that ban in the Education and Inspections Act 2006, but we have said consistently that, where grammar schools exist, it is right for parents to decide whether selection should continue in a particular grammar school, and we have put in place mechanisms for assessment.

I know that some people around the country believe that, where selection applies across a whole county, the hurdles that have to be surmounted before a ballot can be held are substantial. However, parents still have the ability in law to vote to end grammar schools, if they
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choose to, on the basis of a petition. Last year, my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners investigated these issues carefully and concluded that this was not the right time to change the ballot process. He put the file back into the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet, but he is committed to keeping the system under review. He will remove the file from the cabinet on a regular basis to make sure that it is still there.

Paul Holmes: I wonder whether the Secretary of State will answer the question that I posed earlier. If Ministers such as Lord Rooker and the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) can speak so eloquently and passionately about the need to remove the pernicious evils of selection and the grammar school system in Northern Ireland, why is the same not true of England?

Ed Balls: The Government’s position is clear: we do not support selection in schools, but where such selection exists it should be for local areas to decide whether to remove it. We do not support new grammar schools, and in fact that is prescribed in law. We have clear procedures. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners considered the issues, but there was not consensus and he did not think that there was a need to change the arrangements. I understand that some Members are unhappy about that, but that is the position that he reached, and that is our position.

Paul Holmes rose—

Ed Balls: I have taken a number of interventions; I had better make a bit more progress. We cannot support the new clauses that would change the balloting process, and we do not think that it is the right time to put them to a vote.

On new clause 19, we ensure fair admissions in a range of ways—by taking into account proximity, banding or a combination of the two. It would not be right to put into legislation a guarantee that admissions will always be based on proximity. That would not be the way to allow parents to express a preference. A school will not always have the capacity to accept all those who apply to it because it is the nearest school, and in rural areas in particular, the proposals in the new clause may not be the right way to go. We do not think that the clause is the right way for my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North to achieve his objectives.

New clause 18 raises an interesting set of issues. I do not think it is right to equate selection by aptitude with selection by ability. As I have made clear, we do not want to extend selection by ability at all. Children may have an aptitude for a particular subject; that is, they may be able to demonstrate a particular capacity to succeed in a subject, or demonstrate that they will benefit from being taught it. That is something that many schools with a specialism value, and that approach is supported by many parents and schools. As hon. Members know, we made changes in recent years because there were a couple of areas where we were concerned that there might be selection by ability through the specialism route. We took action with regard to information and communications technology and design technology.

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Mr. Laws rose—

Ed Balls: I will finish my point first, and then I will take the intervention.

I have seen the research that we commissioned from Sheffield Hallam university. I understand very well the view of the researchers, who believe that selection on the grounds of aptitude is likely to be socially selective by default. I take that issue very seriously, and we in government have looked at that issue. I remind hon. Members that the Sheffield Hallam research was conducted before the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and the subsequent introduction of the admissions code. The code banned interviewing as part of the admissions process. That step occurred after the Sheffield Hallam research was done.

We should agree that in the light of the Sheffield Hallam research, and in the light of experience with the admissions code, we will keep the issue under review. If it was our view that the researchers were right, and selection by ability was creeping in through the back door, we would take that very seriously, as would the schools adjudicators. However, we think that the admissions code is the right way to take the issue forward for now, although we are happy to keep the position under review.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for those comments, and I can understand why the issue of selection by ability is in the Schools Minister’s bottom drawer, but we are talking about a different question; we are talking about new selection coming into the system. Selection by aptitude is still in place for foreign languages, for example. Will the Secretary of State keep that under review in an active way and commission new research on it, rather than keep it under review in the same way that the other issue, which has been buried in the bottom drawer, is being kept under review?

Ed Balls: As I said earlier, the hon. Gentleman has commended us on our evidence-based research. We will ensure that we have evidence, and we will keep looking at the evidence to see whether, as a result of the admissions code, a problem that some people feared would arise has developed. That is a better way forward than legislating now to drop something that has not been proven to be a problem, and which is popular with schools and parents alike.

Mr. Chaytor: Before we leave that point, will the Secretary of State define the distinction between aptitude and ability? To put it another way, does he think that Ronaldo has an ability to score goals, or merely an aptitude?

7.15 pm

Ed Balls: If a sports college has the power to choose only 10 per cent. of its pupils on the basis of whether they have a particular reason to benefit from its sports offer and its facilities, that is fine. If it turns out that the college is using sports aptitude as a way of finding out whether people can get a certain grade in GCSE maths, or in modern languages, or were using aptitude as a proxy for income, that would be wrong. We are very clear that if a school has a specialism in something other than ICT or design technology—as we have said,
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it could be in maths, sports or modern languages—choosing 10 per cent. of pupils on the basis of aptitude for that subject is fine, so long as aptitude does not become a proxy for wider academic ability or social selection. If the evidence shows that it is indeed being used as a proxy, we will act, but we would need to see the evidence.

Mr. Laws rose—

Ed Balls: I will take one more intervention, and then I will conclude.

Mr. Laws: What is the difference between modern languages, for which the Secretary of State does allow selection by aptitude, and ICT, in respect of which new selection has been banned, although where there is existing selection in schools the practice has been grandfathered?

Ed Balls: It is generally agreed that we need to do more to expand the teaching of, and the number of pupils taking exams in, modern languages in secondary and primary schools. In my constituency, there is a school that has a new modern languages speciality. It is doing well, but to establish a base of expertise and to bring teachers in, it is looking to bring in pupils who have an aptitude for modern languages. That seems to be a perfectly appropriate way for the school to strengthen its experience in that area, and to share that experience with other schools.

Michael Gove: Will the Secretary of State explain for the benefit of the House what the difference is between an intellectual facility with French, which he classifies as an aptitude, and an intellectual ability with, say, the English language or mathematics, which he describes as ability? What is the philosophical or pedagogical difference? I am sure that we would all benefit from hearing that.

Ed Balls: Not having read the Policy Exchange report that advocated the abolition of selecting 10 per cent. of pupils by aptitude, I am not sure that I can answer that question in a way that the hon. Gentleman would find acceptable. It is clear that when it comes to supporting the specialist schools movement and giving parents what they want, selecting 10 per cent. of pupils by aptitude is a powerful way of encouraging the ethos—he may like that word—of those schools. However, that must not happen in a way that allows widespread selection for a range of academic subjects through the back door, or selection by ability.

Mr. Walker: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: I will give way one more time, and then I will conclude.

Mr. Walker: Why was the figure of 10 per cent. alighted on? Why is it not 5, 15 or 20 per cent.?

Ed Balls: The 10 per cent. figure has been there since the beginning of the specialist schools movement, which preceded the Government coming to power in 1997, so the hon. Gentleman may have to ask Conservative Members why 10 per cent. was originally chosen. We
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think that 10 per cent. allows a school to choose a minority—a tenth—of their pupils on the basis of aptitude, without aptitude becoming a proxy for academic ability. As I say, we will keep the Sheffield Hallam research under review. If Policy Exchange is right to say that the policy is a covert, back-door means of allowing selection, it would be right to take action.

Let me turn to new clause 14, admissions and the work that our Department has done in recent months. At the beginning of the debate, I said that we should move forward by consensus and should try not to allow the issue to become a political football. I said that because Government Members and people in my Department have not played politics with the issue. In my view, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has consistently played politics with it from the very beginning. He made that clear in his rather lengthy speech.

I want to explain where I stand on these issues. When I became Secretary of State, I inherited a document called “Faith in the System”, which we published in September. It sets out clearly my support and the Government’s support for faith schools and the role that they play in our education system. Many of them were playing that role before the state provided free education, and many of those had a mission to tackle disadvantage in our education system.

At that time I said—I have been consistent on this—that it is important that our faith schools demonstrate that they are promoting community cohesion and fair admissions through the admissions code. In the conversations that I have had with faith organisations and faith leaders, they are clear in their support for that.

Of course, in the first year there were some issues to sort out, and I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that in the discussions we have been having with the Board of Deputies, we have been able to clarify under the code that the faith organisations’ use of marriage certificates as a way of confirming religious activity is fine. The important thing is that it should be done not by the individual school but by the faith organisations. On that issue, I think we can make progress.

Consistently through this period we have been in discussion with the faith organisations. Let me provide a couple of quotes from the different faith organisations that we have worked with—the hon. Gentleman read out a number of quotes earlier. Mr. Henry Grunwald QC, of the Board of Deputies, said on 10 April:

as I am, and as I set out in the Jewish Chronicle.

The Board of Deputies agrees with me that it is important that Jewish schools comply with the admissions code, and they will do so in future. We are working with them to do so. This is not a witch hunt. The Board of Deputies is working with us to ensure that those schools, which have every right to voluntary contributions, are compliant.

I shall also quote the Bishop of Dover, Stephen Venner, who told BBC Radio 4’s “World at One”:

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