Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, the noble Lord knows that that is not fair. He chided me on this in Committee. He got the position wrong. He was kind enough to say he had it wrong. He said that he would apologise to me shortly. I waited for the apology. In the case of the grant-maintained schools everyone knew exactly who was on the electoral list--the local authority, which often opposed the measure, and all the parents. Is there to be a full electoral list of all those people? Will the ballot company do that? We would like an answer to that. Will everyone be known who is eligible to vote for the petition and then is eligible to vote in the ballot? That is how we conduct elections in this country. Will we have all that information?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes, my Lords. I was responding to the noble Lord's specific claim--which I repudiate--that little will be done as regards checking eligible signatories. Of course there will be a list. I shall discuss later the separate issue of publication of the list when I deal with the relevant amendment.

Amendments Nos 179A and 179D are rather different, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, recognised. They seem to me perfectly reasonable amendments. Indeed, the draft regulations which were issued for consultation on 3rd June include the measures which the amendments would provide. Our only difference with the principal Opposition, the Conservative Party, is that we do not consider it is appropriate for this detail to be on the face of the Bill. The form of words to be used in the regulations is subject to responses to the consultation and will take into account any suggestions received--including the comments of the Opposition Front Bench--on this matter.

Amendment No. 179B is similar to one we discussed during Committee stage. This is where I shall discuss the list of all parents eligible to sign a petition. There are practical difficulties with the amendment and difficulties of principle. First, I shall discuss the practical difficulties. If a list of all eligible parents was

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1150

published during the autumn term, that list might well be out of date by the next term, given that parents may in the interim have moved out of the area, or indeed moved into the area. After all, primary schools have reception classes where pupils are admitted at the beginning of each term.

At Committee stage the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said it would be possible to bring lists up to date. Of course it would but that could result in enormous expense or, rather, a burden on the schools involved. Under our proposals, schools would have to provide updated electoral lists to the ballot company only when a petition has been received and the ballot company does not have the list for that term. As far as I understand the amendment it would result in schools having to tell the ballot company every time there was a change in the details.

The amendment also raises difficulties of principle. First, there is the principle of confidentiality. The amendment raises issues about parents' right to confidentiality. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, recognised in Committee that parents must have the right to remove their names from a list before it is made public. However, she has not provided for that in the amendment which is before the House.

Secondly, there is the issue of fairness. If the list were made available, it would give an advantage to campaigners with sufficient money to circulate material to parents. It could result in parents receiving very one-sided information. In relation to whole LEA ballots where there will be a register for local parents whose children do not attend schools in the area, the register will not be completed until four weeks after the petition has been validated. Therefore there are great difficulties both of principle and of practice with the amendment, although we shall seek by regulation to achieve what is possible in this regard. I draw the attention of the House to draft regulation 21, paragraphs (1) and (2). I draw the attention of noble Lords opposite to the fact that the provisions for the electoral list parallel what happened under grant-maintained school ballots.

Amendment No. 179C attempts to introduce a minimum requirement that any vote in favour of ending selective admission arrangements would require the backing of 40 per cent. of eligible parents. This is where I owe the noble Lord, Lord Baker, an apology because I said that in the grant-maintained ballots all abstentions counted as votes in favour of change. That was not the case. I apologise to the noble Lord for that mis-statement. However, under the amendment, 40 per cent. of eligible parents, as well as a majority of those voting, would be required to end selective admission arrangements. It will be noted that the amendment seeks to introduce no such turnout requirement for ballots in favour of the status quo.

As regards rigged ballots, that is certainly what is proposed in Amendment No. 179C. The ballot arrangements that we propose will be a two-stage process. There will be a petition where a threshold will apply, and following that--in other words, when the threshold has been crossed--a simple majority of those voting will be required.

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1151

Amendment No. 179E is the amendment on a moratorium which I thought we had killed last time. I am astonished that it has been raised again. Under the amendment, which introduces a moratorium on petitions, it would be possible for a group of parents to raise, at the end of the school year, a phoney petition with only half a dozen signatures, or a petition that would have to be declared invalid because it had not been properly prepared. That in itself would prevent a further petition for the next five years. I am not good at sporting metaphors, but that seems to be kicking the whole matter into touch.

Amendments. Nos. 179F and 179G are relatively minor. They relate to the definition of a feeder school which in our proposed definition is one that has sent five or more pupils in total to one or more of the grammar schools over the previous three years. The amendment proposes that qualification even if just one person had applied to a relevant grammar school. Grammar schools do not keep records for that time in relation to who has applied. The amendments are entirely impracticable.

Amendment No. 179H provides for no further ballot for 15 years. The noble Baroness mentioned several times the idea of a war of attrition. The 15-year gap for which the amendment provides would mean that significant numbers of parents never have an opportunity to vote on whether the grammar schools in their area should change their admission arrangements.

I apologise for the length of my reply; however, these amendments all relate to different matters and have to be dealt with individually. Amendment No. 186A attempts to delay the implementation of any change by specifying in the Bill that the implementation of non-selective admissions policies may not be required by a date less than 30 months after the ballot. That is a very long time. The amendment is simply a delaying tactic. There is no necessity for it, and no necessity was argued by the noble Baroness.

If I have bored the House by responding to individual amendments, I apologise. However, I wanted to make it clear that the amendments do not do what noble Lords opposite want them to do--that is, maintain grammar schools at all cost. I hope I have not tempted them to try to do that at Third Reading. In the meantime, I hope that they will not insist on pressing these amendments.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am totally vindicated in my view that old Labour is in the driving seat, and the train is travelling very fast indeed. All the prejudices against selection, against grammar schools, have emerged today in fulsome tribute from the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, who has left the Chamber, referred to reorganisation and the possibility of disruption for children, and to the number of grammar schools that were closed under the administration of my noble friend Lady Thatcher. I, like my noble friend, do not believe that it was the most glorious period of Conservative history. However, it pales into insignificance given the number of previous

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1152

policies that have been denounced by the Labour Party during this year. The Labour Party has produced U-turns almost in art form. The noble Lord, Lord Peston, regrets some of those.

The difference between then and now in regard to the reorganisation proposals is that, previously, each proposal brought forward to the department was presented on the basis of having already consulted, the plans having already been produced and fully costed. The proposals had been fully planned in terms of time as well as money, and in terms of where the children would go to school. Those were all aspects of the application to the Department of Education and Science. That is rather different from what is on the table today. The Labour Government's policy was wholly and soundly denounced by Andrew Adonis, the present adviser on education to the Prime Minister. He obviously belongs to the new wing of Labour. He denounced the introduction of compulsory comprehensive education. It was a Conservative government who ended the compulsory nature of comprehensive education, which enabled today's grammar schools to exist.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to the interregnum. He said that he could not understand the points I was making nor what the fuss was about. It is possible, given the timescale on which the Government are insisting, having not agreed to my amendment, that when the first cohort of children go into a school next year, which is the earliest a ballot could take place-- I have tabled a Written Question on this matter, but one waits interminably for answers--many grammar schools could close, depending on where the ballot takes place. Children among the first year secondary intake--I am using old terminology now, not seven, eight and nine year-olds--would be followed by a new first-year when they became the second-years of a comprehensive intake, and then a further comprehensive intake. That would provide for a partly selective, partly comprehensive school. Teachers would not be trained in dealing with the full range of abilities. All would be attending the school at the same time. That would happen only if a school remained in its own buildings.

Taking Kent as an example, 108 schools would be involved in a reorganisation to close 33 grammar schools. Those 108 would include three middle schools, 17 comprehensive schools and 33 grammar schools. The 17 comprehensive schools would include about 12 schools with a religious character. That would be a very dramatic upheaval. Children would be involved in split sites, mergers or full closures. We got into arguments on semantics with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in regard to schools not closing. Those schools will cease to exist as grammar schools. Almost all of them are too small in themselves to be all-through comprehensive schools. So they would have to change dramatically. There would be a difficult interregnum.

Under the Government's proposals, an unsuccessful ballot could be held when a pupil was in the first year. A second ballot could be held when that same pupil was still in the school, possibly in the first-year sixth, and that could go on ad infinitum. One child should at least be able to see his or her period of schooling through in

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1153

a grammar school having had his or her life disrupted only once. Under the present arrangements it would happen more than once.

If the Government really believed in pursuing excellence, as Mr. Byers reminds us almost on a daily basis, they would not be proposing to engineer the demise of these schools. The Government say that they will allow changes to the Bill in line with the wishes of the best grant-maintained schools in the land. But they have resisted all recommendations and all amendments that we have proposed to that end. They have also spoken warmly of the future of grammar schools--only to set up class warfare in areas where grammar schools exist.

I have discovered another example of an excellent grant-maintained secondary modern school, Waddesdon Church of England School. Together with Aylesbury High School and Ashton-on-Mersey grant-maintained secondary modern school, it is recognised as an outstanding centre of excellence. Only today those schools received their status as beacon schools. They are in areas where selective education is taking place. What we know, and can prove statistically, is that where there is selective education, the level of education in all schools rises. Northern Ireland offers one of the best examples. The Government are making a fallacious argument. As for the school cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, all I can say is that there are excellent comprehensive schools all over the country, just as there are excellent grammar schools, grant-maintained schools, church schools and bilateral schools. We are the party of diversity and choice. As noble Lords opposite have said, it is not choice that they support. It is choice that we support.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that we merely wish to see the ballots fail. That is not the import of these amendments. The ballots will have serious consequences. Just one ballot in Kent will cause the closure--it will cause the end--of 33 grammar schools. That is very serious. Because it is serious, we believe that there should be hurdles to bringing it about. Why is the formula good enough for recognition of trade unions in the workplace and yet it is not good enough for these ballots? The seriousness of the issues is very similar. The idea that these schools will not close is pure semantics on the part of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.

I was not sure what the noble Lord said about my amendment. He sounded warm about it, as indeed Labour Ministers sound warm about all kinds of things, but the practice will be important. If the noble Lord is saying that the names of the schools will appear on the petition and on the ballot paper, then we shall at least have gone some way. When parents sign the petition, they will know that the consequence is that they are signing away the existence of the grammar schools in their area.

As for confidentiality, I believe that it should be secured. It was secured with the grant-maintained school ballots, and there is no reason why the same system should not be used again. The Government are saying that parents will not have the information about reorganisation, about the costings and about the level of

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1154

disruption; and, before the petition is signed, they will not see the list of eligible parents. The final touch, and even rougher justice, is that the decisions will be made by a school organisation committee and the adjudicator--unelected placemen--side-stepping the democratic process. I find that wholly unacceptable.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, referred to his own glorious past in closing down an excellent school. But he did say something very interesting: there was the agreement of the school in that case. We are not arguing about that. Where schools agree to go along with these proposals, wonderful, we accept that. We believe in freedom of choice. But this is not agreeing; it is imposition. My noble friend Lady Knight referred to the unbelievable, undemocratic proposition that parents of children in the very schools that will be subject to going out of existence will not be allowed to vote in the ballot. How can the Government, who profess to be democratic and open, defend that?

I have to say, on a note of real cynicism, that I cannot admit to being moved by those who themselves enjoyed a grammar school education spending most of their adult political life condemning and criticising grammar schools. Why is it that Harriet Harman went to such lengths to get her child into a grammar school? I hazard a guess that she did it because she believed that the school provided an education that suited the educational needs of her own child. Good for her. But what hypocrisy when people take advantage of the system and then close the door to that opportunity for all other children.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that my amendments undermined Mr. Byers's pursuit of excellence. Let us examine what this great man is doing and what his methods are. He first destroys excellence; he then levels down; he produces a few gimmicky schemes; and he talks up standards. Yet he introduces a Bill obsessed with structures and not with standards. It is open knowledge that there is a tension between New and Old Labour on education. In this Bill, Old Labour is winning. I commend the amendment to the House.

6.53 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 178A) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 72; Not-Contents, 121.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page