Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Tope: My Lords, I think this debate and the previous one have livened things up just a little bit at one o'clock in the morning. Clearly I will not press my opposition at this stage of the night.

Clause 95 agreed to.

Clause 96 [Permitted selection: pupil banding]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 230D:

Page 73, line 7, after ("ability") insert (", or of any range of ability which shall be specified in the admission arrangements,").

The noble Baroness said: I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 230D and 230E, which refer to banding and the Government's slightly muddled approach to selection. I also rise to comfort the noble

8 Jun 1998 : Column 856

Lord, Lord Tope; not to sparkle in his presence, but to offer some crumbs of comfort. I take issue with my noble friend on the Front Bench--I think for the first time--regarding the way in which I believe he was somewhat sanguine about the Government's policies. I think that old Labour is there in spades. If you cannot see that, then you see nothing.

It does not suit Mr Blair's image to get rid of ability in one fell swoop, so he does it in this way. He sets up a rigged balloting system to make sure that the grammar schools disappear off the face of the earth and follows that up with an admissions policy, the code of practice of which we will not see while we discuss this Bill because it will be hidden under wraps; that is, unless the spin doctors think it is advisable to leak it at some point. I doubt it. It is not a document they would want us to see ahead of discussing this Bill. What is not done by the rigged balloting system will be polished off by the admissions policy, when it is applied.

The truth is that selection will go and the Government intend that it should go. In the department there are at least two Ministers who are unreconstructed old Labour and there is a Prime Minister and at least one Minister in the department who have signed up to new Labour. Therefore, there is that presentational issue. The Government are saying that they are not really against selection. They are saying, "We are pragmatic. We shall keep what we have at the moment but not add to it". The truth is that it will not stay. What exists at present is very much under threat.

This is serious politics of envy. It is a dumbing-down, a levelling-down. It will take some time before its effect registers. We have seen a sustained attack on what works: assisted places to help young people from low income families, on Oxford and Cambridge, on grammar schools, on the autonomy of our GM-schools and now a sleight-of-hand attack on selection. Therefore, I am not the least bit impressed by what is taking place at present.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tope: "Watch this space". I agree that the Liberals would have been open and honest about this. They would have introduced a Bill which would have been unequivocal and which would have contained abolition clauses. However, I ask the noble Lord to have faith because he will get where he wants to be in policy terms by the measures in this Bill, although it may take a little longer.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and their colleagues in the Labour Party are not prepared to take a look around the Continent to see what works. They are certainly not prepared to look at this country to see what works. We shall see a destruction of what works, and it is such a pity. We believe that it is right to be concerned for all children; that there are some children who are much better suited to a fast-stream, academic education. That is why we set up city technology colleges and specialist schools. There are children who will have aptitude and ability--and I use those words wholly interchangeably--to go to a school which specialises in languages, sciences, technology, the arts, history, geography or whatever it may be. We provide schools to ensure that that can happen.

8 Jun 1998 : Column 857

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked for examples of where selection has been reintroduced. It has been reintroduced in our specialist schools. They are free to, and do, select children on the basis of an aptitude and/or ability in their particular specialism.

Before I left the department I approved a bilateral school. That was a school that was a secondary modern school in an area served by grammar schools. It wished to have one fast-stream grammar school entry. We believed it was worth doing. We were advised strongly by the officials in the department that it was inadvisable to give such approval on the grounds that it might fail and be embarrassing for Ministers. I took the view that approval should be given if the parents wanted it, the school believed it could deliver and the headmistress believed that she could offer education to girls--it was a girls' school--who were more suited to a fast-stream academic provision. It has been extremely successful and I am very proud to have done it. Had it failed, I should have still taken off my hat to a school which was innovative and wanted to try to do its best by the girls in that school.

I do not have any hang-ups about this. I have looked at the thesaurus and the dictionary. "Aptitude" always subsumes ability. Ability does not always necessarily subsume aptitude because you can have ability without an aptitude for a subject. But wherever the word "aptitude" is found in the dictionary, it subsumes ability. We are having a crazy debate about selecting children on the basis of aptitude and not on the basis of ability. Again, it is cowardly on the part of the Government. They are trying to say that they are modern but, on the other hand, they are almost a dinosaur in terms of what they are destroying in their path.

I do not believe that my noble friend Lord Lucas was being inconsistent. Indeed, he was trying to help the Government to make that distinction. He was trying to tease the Government out of their shell and persuade them to offer a proper distinction, which they have so far failed to do. We have read and re-read the debates which took place in another place. I do not believe that I have ever read a more unenlightened debate as to what it is that the Government are trying to do when they make a distinction between the two words. It is true to say that this is egalitarian. It is definitely where old Labour wants to be. All that is working in British education will now be sacrificed on the altar of egalitarianism. It is a great pity.

It may help the noble Baroness if I couple Amendment No. 231A with my amendments. Indeed, Amendments Nos. 231A and 230F deal with keeping testing. It seems to me to be bizarre. If specialist schools are allowed to select on the basis of their specialism, what on earth are they going to use for selection? They cannot interview or test. Therefore, they will have to rely on selective or perhaps objective approaches. Somewhere in the system someone will have to say, "We believe in this child's ability"; in other words, it will be a form of selection without being able, physically, to have the child before those concerned in order to challenge and to test whether or not there is an aptitude or an ability to cope with a curriculum which

8 Jun 1998 : Column 858

would offer a particular kind of education. It really is absurd. I make no apology for using strong language in that respect. Young people certainly need stretching and that applies especially to the most able children in our land. For a proportion of them, offering an academic education is the answer.

I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on one point. In this Chamber we are seldom concerned about the other children; namely, those who are not selected for grammar schools. I do not stand guilty of that charge. My children went to a comprehensive school. They have done extremely well, so I make no criticism. I have always believed that what matters is how a school is run, how it is led, together with the competence and the quality of the staff. I have always thought that it is the most powerful brew to have supportive parents, receptive children and good and high quality staff. That seems to me to be most powerful brew. Indeed, whether it is a bilateral school, a comprehensive school, a grammar school, a specialist school, a city technology college, a voluntary-aided or voluntary-controlled school, it really does not matter if it is well run. What matters is having the full tapestry of provision. That means diversity and as wide a choice and opportunity as possible to enable children to receive the most appropriate education.

We pride ourselves on being concerned about children with special needs. I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, talked earlier about the children who end up at the Menuhin School or the Chetham School in Manchester. That is one end of the spectrum of special needs. At the other end of the spectrum are the children who have a different kind of special need but which, nevertheless, is equally as important and must be met. It is seriously prejudiced and bigoted not to allow testing and to bar selection on the basis of having a child tested for ability and/or aptitude.

Amendment No. 230G, which is also tabled in my name, would take out the word "prescribed", while Amendment No. 230F would remove the reference to subsection (2) which would be removed by Amendment No. 321A. Amendment No. 230H would remove the pernicious subsection (l)(b) which, again, restricts the percentage of ability to 10 per cent. The provision is simply dumbing down.

I should like to think that we would have an opportunity to influence the thinking on this clause, but with the Leviathan of the majority in another place and the simple baying of the Back-Benchers on the Labour Benches, which was supported heartily and warmly by those on the Liberal Benches, I suspect that these schools are doomed: selection is doomed, grammar schools are doomed, autonomy for grant-maintained schools is doomed, assisted places are already doomed and Oxford and Cambridge are also doomed over time. I hope that the Ministers feel proud of their achievements. I beg to move.

1.15 a.m.

Lord Tope: The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, began, as indeed did the Minister, by saying they were unable

8 Jun 1998 : Column 859

to sparkle at this time of night. I thought they sparkled remarkably. Indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, told me that I would feel encouraged by what she had to say. I felt enormously encouraged by much of what she had to say. If she is right, I cannot understand why the Government go to such extraordinary lengths to keep quiet about this. Nor have I heard the baying which she mentioned, but perhaps my hearing is selective.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in our previous discussions on this Bill, has confessed, or has come close to confessing, to us that he is really Old Labour. I have long had a sneaky feeling that on this issue at least the Minister's head rules her heart. I hope that all the encouragement I have just received from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is not to be dashed by the reply we are about to hear.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page