Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: I should like to offer the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, an opportunity to avoid the wounding charge of being slightly duplicitous in being a proponent of the Government's policy, which was levelled at her by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. Earlier this afternoon I invited an answer to the question of whether the remark made not very long ago by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Mr. Blunkett, that he could not be

10 Jun 1998 : Column 1052

expected within a few months to complete the work begun by Anthony Crosland represented the Government's policy. After all, most people who are anxious about the future of the grammar schools can be forgiven for supposing that those words represent the Government's policy. We know perfectly well about the policy of Mr. Crosland back in the 1960s and here we have the Secretary of State saying, "I cannot be expected to complete that within a few months." The natural inference is that he wishes to complete it, but that it will take a little longer. If that is the Government's policy, the noble Baroness will be able to avoid the charge of duplicity if she frankly says, as my noble friend Lord Baker invited her to do, "Yes, it is our policy; we should like to get rid of the grammar schools. It is true that we shall not bring an axe to bear on them, but we shall resort to what we hope will be a thousand cuts." What other explanation can there be for permitting a ballot year after year? That is what will happen if a ballot does not produce what many of us believe to be the desired result from the Government's point of view. Why should the triggering petitions be permitted year after year?

Does not the Minister, or whoever is to reply to the debate, recognise the virtue of stability in education? I understood the noble Baroness to say earlier that she did, indeed, recognise that virtue. However, does she recognise that anything but stability will be the consequence of petition after petition? Does she recognise the character of the campaign that in the past has been waged against the grammar schools and which we shall certainly see again in the future? Does the noble Baroness recognise the appeal that will be made to very emotional considerations? Does she believe that allowing that to happen year in, year out--and it will--will induce stability? Does the noble Baroness recognise my fear that the very instability that it will induce will lead some parents to say, "We don't want to send our child to this school, although it is the best in the area, because we recognise that sooner or later the thousand cuts will bring about its demise"? Many people see that as a duplicitous approach to an objective which is not explicitly declared.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity now afforded to answer the question of whether it is the Government's hope and purpose that the grammar schools should go. That would enable us to look in a much more realistic light at the various arrangements which are the subject of further amendments both tonight and later.

Lord Dormand of Easington: Before the noble and learned Lord sits down, perhaps he will answer one question. He has properly laid great stress on stability in education and I concur with that view. In those circumstances, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House how many Bills of fundamental importance to education his government introduced in the 18 years in which they were in power?

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: When I first became a Member of your Lordships' House, many people told me that party points were not at the head and forefront

10 Jun 1998 : Column 1053

of noble Lords' considerations. I am quite prepared to acknowledge to the noble Lord that I very much regret the fact that many grammar schools were abolished under the Conservative Government in which, as already mentioned, my noble friend Lady Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education. However, remarkably sound achievements were also made in those years and stability has been gravely damaged by the undermining of some of those achievements. We have already referred to grant-maintained schools.

It should be possible today to say whether stability is an objective, although perhaps not the sole objective. We are having a grown-up discussion in which I have ventured to ask whether it is still the Government's objective to encourage stability. I have also asked whether, if stability is an objective, providing for petitions year in, year out until the thing comes "right" actually does encourage stability.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I seem to have two tasks. One is to respond to the amendments and the other is to deal with the "Question Time" atmosphere on the Conservative Benches. I approach both with equal relish.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, should not be put forward to start such a circus. This is the man whose government wanted to get rid of local education authorities. He wanted to stop their having any say in secondary education. His government were quite clear about it. They wanted to have 19,000 grant-maintained schools. They did not say so, but that is what they wanted. To achieve that, they set up a system allowing schools to opt into grant-maintained status and out of the control of the local education authorities. The noble Lord himself established a system whereby all abstentions in a ballot were counted on his side. There were many variations on that system as it became clear that parents did not want it. Only a tiny minority wanted to opt for grant-maintained status, despite the fact that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, reminded us, it was used as a way out of the sensible reorganisation that was necessary because of the declining school rolls. Even so, the noble Lord's government wanted to distance all secondary schools from their local education authorities. They did not dare say so, but they tried to rig the ballot system accordingly.

Those are the people who have the nerve to stand up this afternoon and to say that we are being duplicitous--

Baroness Blatch: Will the noble Lord give way?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, I am not giving way for the moment. I am referring now to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden. When I am being told that I am duplicitous, I want to be told that I am duplicitous. I do not want to be told, as the noble and learned Lord said, that we are seen by "many people" as being duplicitous. I call that duplicitous. I gladly give way to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch: Does the noble Lord agree that when parents voted for grant-maintained status, they voted on and for their own schools? In this case, the

10 Jun 1998 : Column 1054

Government are enfranchising people who do not have an interest in grammar schools and allowing them to vote for or against the existence of those grammar schools. The Government are giving the vote to those whose children are not pupils of those schools.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The reason why we have local education authorities and a local system of education rather than a centralised system is that in the cities, towns and rural areas of this country the education system consists of more than just one school. That is why we have to have ballots of all those affected by any proposals. That is the fundamental reason why we object to the system which the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and his colleagues introduced in an attempt, which they never admitted openly, to deprive local education authorities of a say in the running of secondary schools. Of course, they then tried to do the same with regard to primary schools. In the first place, however, they tried to drive local education authorities out of existence and we then had a centrally controlled system under the Funding Agency for Schools. That is why the Conservative Government did what they did in the way that they did.

Lord Baker of Dorking: On the question of the role of LEAs, about which the noble Lord has just waxed so eloquently, he cannot have read the speech made by Mr. Stephen Byers a fortnight ago. The noble Lord's Government are to reduce the role of the LEAs to one of only marginal responsibilities. They have sent out a consultation document. I know that the noble Lord is not a Minister in the department and so he cannot be expected to follow this in great detail. He is chiding me for having rigged the franchise while he is rigging two fancy franchises. The noble Lord said that I did that with regard to grant-maintained schools. If I did, I did a very bad job of it, did I not--

Noble Lords: Yes!

Lord Baker of Dorking: --because in many of those elections, the parents did not vote for grant-maintained status. However, we gave them the choice. As my noble friend Lady Blatch said, the electorate then was school-based and comprised the people directly involved. Under the Government's proposals, if it is a local authority ballot parents who may live 30 miles away will have a say in the future of that school. What is democratic about that? It is not democratic. Perhaps the Minister will answer one specific question. Does he personally want to see the end of all grammar schools?

6 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Since the Committee is engaged in a wider debate perhaps I should refer to the Labour Party manifesto, on which this Government were elected. I have no difficulty with that and the way in which it has been implemented. We said in the manifesto that there should be no return to the 11-plus, which divided children into successes and failures at far too early an age, and that any changes to the admission

10 Jun 1998 : Column 1055

policies of grammar schools would be decided by local parents. That was what we said and that is what we are doing. There is no duplicity in that at all.

I turn to the amendments, which are not concerned with ballots but petitions, which are quite different. None of the amendments now being debated refers to ballots, although one might not think so from the way in which some noble Lords opposite have spoken this afternoon. The purpose of this group of amendments beginning with Amendment No. 233ZC is to place unrealistic and unnecessary obstacles in the way of parents who support an end to selective admission arrangements and to grammar school governing bodies who wish to publish proposals to remove their selective arrangements. The majority seek unfairly to tip the scales against those who support an end to selection. Amendments Nos. 233AA, 233AC and 233BA are all designed to make the task of raising a petition unrealistically difficult.

Dealing first with Amendment No. 233AA, the threshold proposed is 50 per cent. of eligible parents being required to sign a petition. For example, in Kent it would require a petition of 250,000 or more signatures. That represents a mammoth tasks. The Government fully accept it is right that the ballot procedure should not be lightly undertaken and that there should be evidence of significant local demand before one is triggered. It was with that in mind that we set the petition threshold at 20 per cent. of eligible parents.

But we must bear in mind that a petition of itself does not require change in grammar school admissions. The petition merely acts as a trigger for holding a ballot in which all eligible parents can have their say and where change will take place only if a majority of those voting say that that is what they want. The noble Lord derided democracy and said that the Government were using it to destroy the grammar schools. A majority is what democracy is about. Control of the majority by a minority is not a readily acceptable alternative. Setting the petition threshold as high as 50 per cent. of eligible parents is clearly a ruse to ensure that ballots can never in practice be triggered and is unacceptable to the Government.

I move now to Amendment No. 233AC, which provides mechanisms to limit the life of any petition to any one academic year. Those are already contained in draft regulations that the department issued for consultation last week. I draw your Lordships' attention to regulation 7(4) in the draft that we have issued for consultation which states explicitly that for a petition to be valid it must have been received within the school year. A school year is defined as the period from 1st September to 31st July. Therefore, the amendment is quite unnecessary.

Amendment No. 233BA seeks to introduce a moratorium for petitions. We shall not fall into that trap. It leaves the system open to the most obvious abuse. If this amendment were accepted supporters of grammar schools could submit a petition with five names on it toward the end of the year safe in the knowledge that

10 Jun 1998 : Column 1056

it would never trigger a ballot but would trigger a moratorium and thus deny parents the right to consider the issue for five years. That cannot be right.

We have a moratorium provision where it should be--on the deciding ballot itself--to make sure that all of the fears that noble Lords opposite have expressed will not arise. I believe that there are people outside this Chamber who will be very offended by some of the descriptions of the majority of parents who, it is acknowledged, want to end selection. We will not fall into the trap of saying that very few people can easily trigger a moratorium, which means that the matter cannot be raised for five years afterwards.

We come back to the issue of stability about which noble Lords have asked me. Stability is a good thing and we are in favour of it. But we are not in favour of stability at any price. We cannot and should not freeze the school system. The Conservative Government did not do so. They looked for ways to improve standards. I acknowledge that many of their motivations--I refer to city technology colleges as an example--were admirable, although not always their achievements. At any given moment the school system is as it is. One cannot say that there will never be change. Of course, the education service must change, develop and progress. We believe that the system of ballots triggered by petitions as proposed in this part of the Bill is not only a rational and democratic way of proceeding but is precisely in accordance with our explicit manifesto.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page