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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me for interrupting. I may be very slow indeed, but my difficulty is that the explanations have not always tallied with each other. That has led me to suppose that the noble Baroness might welcome an opportunity to clear up the confusion which is totally foreign to herself but is engendered by her colleagues elsewhere.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am happy to send the noble Lord a number of documents, including speeches made by my colleagues. Perhaps that would help him.

Let me begin by saying that this Government are committed to raising standards for every pupil in every school. I am not sure that that could be legitimately claimed by noble Lords on the Conservative Benches opposite for their government. I am afraid that it could not be claimed; there would be no validity to such a claim.

The amendment certainly does not address the task of raising standards in all our schools. As my noble friend Lady Lockwood said--

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I do not want to disturb the debate, but in answer to the idea that this side of the House did nothing about standards, will the noble Baroness explain why the Government maintained Christopher Woodhead, and Ofsted, which was a result of the policies of the previous government? Is that an example of not raising standards?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I endorse the work that is done by the Chief Inspector of Schools. That does not mean that Members of the Conservative Opposition can claim that they successfully raised standards--on the contrary, their policies did quite the reverse. Many young people--

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords--

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am not going to give way again. I have given way twice already in the first three sentences of my reply. I must be allowed to make my arguments. It really is impossible if noble Lords opposite rise to interrupt, literally after every phrase. I should like to be able to make a speech and if, at the end, noble Lords want to put further questions, I shall of course be delighted to try to answer them.

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I want to pick out something that my noble friend Lady Lockwood said, as did the noble Lord, Lord Tope. Not only does the amendment not address the task of raising standards; it does not address the main purpose of the Bill--namely, to create a new infrastructure for raising standards and participation in post-16 learning and skills development.

Before this Government were elected, decisions on the future of grammar schools were in the hands of local authorities and Ministers in Whitehall. We had a manifesto commitment to place those decisions in the hands of local parents. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, knows very well, we delivered that manifesto commitment in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The legislation was, of course, passed by both Houses of Parliament. What the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, now seeks to do is to overturn the manifesto commitment which was fulfilled through the passing of that legislation.

The amendment is intended to repeal that legislation in spite of the manifesto commitment that led to it and, with it, the position that we established by which parents--not local authorities, not Ministers, not civil servants--would decide on the future admissions of grammar schools. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, suggested that the Government had been unprincipled. I refute that suggestion. This was a principled commitment to allow parents to decide the future of the structure of secondary education in those areas where grammar schools remain.

The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 also prevents any new selection by ability, except, of course, for sixth forms and for banding pupils to ensure intake across the ability range. In the case of grammar schools, the Act allows existing selection to be removed only where parents vote for it to change or the governors of a grammar school put forward such proposals. The Act also leaves decisions on partial selection to the adjudicator. We steered that legislation through Parliament precisely because, while we believe that further selection by ability would not enhance standards, it should be for parents locally, not LEAs or Ministers, to decide whether they wish to change the 11-plus. The Government continue to believe--this is true of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the Prime Minister and all other Members of the Government--that selection by ability does not enhance standards.

Acceptance of the amendment would mean that we were letting Ripon parents vote for all parents, which would be a very odd position to adopt. By analogy, it would be like the result of a by-election determining the governance of the country as a whole. Ripon parents have voted, as the legislation allows, on their local circumstances. Of course, we respect that vote--although I understand that my noble friend Lord Hattersley does not like it. The first ballot has taken place. Parents in Ripon have been able to express their view clearly. There were complaints during the ballot process that it was unfair, particularly as regards the composition of the electorate. But those complaints have been made by both sides, and indeed back in 1998

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when the School Standards and Framework Bill received its Second Reading in this House on 7th April, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, alleged:

    "The survival of grammar schools would be at the mercy of a biased balloting system.--[Official Report, 7/4/98; col. 624.]

Finding myself between my noble friend Lord Hattersley--who I must say is ageing extremely well, and who is certainly much loved, always has been and always will be--puts me firmly in the centre, and in quite a reasonable position.

The claims made by the noble Baroness do not stand up to scrutiny. The electorate was composed of parents whose children attend the schools which most regularly send children to Ripon Grammar School. These are therefore the parents with the greatest interest in the future of the school.

Placing the future of selection by ability for the 164 remaining grammar schools in the hands of parents allows us to concentrate on our main agenda of raising standards in all 3,600 secondary schools. A number of rather over-the-top comments were made by noble Lords opposite when describing what has happened in Ripon. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Brett, who was right to point out that bandying around such terms as "torture" really is purple prose of the worst kind.

Perhaps I may describe some of the ways in which we are raising standards in our 3,600 secondary schools, and indeed across the system. I very much agree with the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that we must put behind us some of the sterile arguments that we have heard in this debate from the Conservative Opposition.

We are at the beginning of a three-year period of significant growth in education spending. The proportion of national income spent on education will rise over the course of this Parliament; whereas over the course of the previous Parliament it fell. We are providing a real terms increase in spending of 16 per cent. These resources ensure that standards can be raised in all schools for all pupils. I want to underline again that we should be talking about all schools and all pupils, not just a tiny minority in the remaining 164 grammar schools.

We are tackling poor performance in primary schools so that firm foundations are laid for success in secondary education. We inherited a situation in which more than four in 10 of 11 year-olds fell below the standards set for their age in literacy and numeracy. That is the extent to which the previous government, in their 18 years in power, failed our children and young people. Thanks to the literacy hour and numeracy strategy--measures opposed by the Conservative Party--we are raising achievement in primary education, particularly in schools in the most disadvantaged areas. We are delivering on our commitments to ensure that all pupils can succeed.

We put in place new measures to improve the transition from primary to secondary education, including a successful programme of summer schools particularly designed to help young people in disadvantaged areas. The Secretary of State for

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Education and Employment has spelt out a radical new agenda for raising standards at key stage 3--measures that will ensure that pupils can succeed whatever their background, whatever school they attend.

I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, that there can be great choice in the comprehensive system. Not all comprehensive schools are identical. We have a range of policies that promote diversity in schools. We are increasing the number of special schools that provide opportunities for children with a particular interest in the arts, languages, sports or technology to play to their strengths. Specialist schools do work. Their performance on average in 1999 examinations improved compared with other schools. Specialist schools are also popular. By September 2000, there will be specialist schools in 86 per cent of education authorities. My noble friend Lady Lockwood was right to point up the choice that exists in the comprehensive system. There will be even more choice in future. We are also encouraging setting, which takes account of the different abilities of different pupils in different subjects. We are working on a national strategy for improving the education of gifted and talented pupils. Our Excellence in Cities programme includes initiatives for able pupils as well as promoting new opportunities across the ability range for young people who in the past had far too few chances to realise their potential.

I will say more about the success of comprehensive schools. Schools that select pupils by high academic ability are bound to perform better than those which admit the full range of ability. However, the average performance of the top 24 per cent of pupils at maintained comprehensives is the same as that of grammar school pupils, based on the GCSE points score for 15 year-olds in 1997-98, the latest year for which data are available. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hattersley and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that many comprehensives are doing a truly excellent job.

As to the references to Kent made by Opposition speakers, I confirm that--as was said by my noble friend Lord Hattersley--Kent had the highest number of schools in the country with serious weaknesses. It had 11 schools requiring special measures--hardly a reputation of which to be proud.

The amendment is an attempt to reintroduce the Conservative policy of a grammar school in every town which that party failed to implement during 18 years in office and which has been disowned by both shadow Education Secretaries since the general election. Theresa May told the Times Educational Supplement as recently as 1st October 1999:

    "I don't get the impression that in areas where there are no grammar schools there is a great groundswell of opinion in favour of introducing them".

Nor do we.

I cannot accept the amendment. Moreover, we shall seek to reverse it in another place if we lose the Division that I anticipate the noble Baroness is about to call. Nevertheless, I ask her to withdraw the amendment.

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5.45 p.m.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, may I ask the Minister one question before she sits down? At the beginning, the Minister said that the last Conservative administration had failed our young people. She used that phrase again halfway through her speech. At the beginning she said there had been no progress. Halfway through she said that the last Conservative administration had failed our young people. How does the noble Baroness reconcile that allegation with what actually happened? When we came to office, some 30 per cent of 16 year-olds were staying on for higher and further education. When we left office, that figure had risen to 75 per cent.

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