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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question which was asked in another place earlier this afternoon.
"The policy which the Labour Party agreed in 1995 and our manifesto both said that the decision on whether grammar schools continue to use the 11-plus would be a matter for parents, not local education authorities. That was agreed by both Houses of Parliament in the School Standards and Framework Act, which remains the law. It remains our position today.
"Yes, we can learn from the first Fresh Start schools, but leaving schools to sink or close is not an alternative which this Government will accept. So today I can tell the House that we are inviting promoters from the voluntary, religious or business sectors to bring forward proposals to take over weak or failing schools or to replace them with new city academies.
"The promoters of the academy will have plans for improving education for all the pupils attending the school which is to be replaced. We will use existing legislative powers to establish them. They will be built and managed by partnerships involving the state, voluntary, Church and business sponsors. Over the next year, we intend to launch the first academies. We will be looking for imaginative proposals from potential promoters. The aim will always be to improve pupil performance by breaking the cycle of low expectations. Promoters may use different approaches to management, governance, teaching, the school day and the curriculum. We would expect a specialist focus in at least one curriculum area. The academies will also work with other local schools.
'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'.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating that Answer. However, first, I am deeply disappointed that the conventions of the House were not followed and that I was not given a copy of it. I had to go to the noble Baroness's own Whips' Office and was given a copy of the Statement which belonged to one of the clerks in that office. I find that a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. I received it literally only two or three minutes before I walked into the Chamber, and only after my own efforts to find it.
Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will give way. This Statement was made as a result of an Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place. In the case of a PNQ, it is not customary to give the Answer to the Opposition Front Bench. I speak as one who served on the Opposition Front Bench for 10 years. It is only in the case of a formal Statement in another place that the Opposition Front Bench get a shot at it first.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that is as may be. However, copies of the Statement are available. The Minister has it; the clerks in her office have it; and I believe that it would have been a courtesy to have allowed me to see a copy of it, too.
The noble Baroness is aware that the Secretary of State's Statement was extremely disappointing. However, when one strips away all the words, it amounts to a very real message to the anti-grammar school campaigners, "Don't stop your work! Keep burrowing, keep harassing, and we will use the might of our vote in another place to back you".
Since that statement, does the noble Baroness appreciate the reaction of grammar school staff, parents and children? I give as an example the experience of Mrs Margaret Lenton, head teacher of Slough Grammar School. On Saturday morning a meeting of 500 people took place at Slough Grammar School. They were overjoyed with the Ripon result and greeted it with cheers. They were even more thrilled this morning when they heard the news of your Lordships' decision yesterday. However, all their hopes are now dashed. It is a source of great jollity to the noble Lord, Lord Bach. I believe that the sentiments of those parents were genuine; they felt exceedingly let down after having their hopes raised by the Secretary of State over the weekend.
We welcome the announcement today about academies. Indeed, we should regard it as something of a flattering proposition. They are modelled on the city technology colleges. They will be given the freedom that those colleges enjoy, longer days, and involvement with business. They will be freed from teaching the national curriculum, and I wish them well. Certainly, we support the record of the city technology colleges and the way in which the experience of those colleges spawned specialist schools. The noble Baroness's party has picked up, supported and, indeed, extended that.
However, one cannot get away from the Secretary of State's Statement. We understand from a Question earlier today that it was only the reference to "watch my lips" that was the joke. Not many people got that until the other day. As the Daily Mail journalist said, it took us five years to understand the punch-line. Nevertheless, once we understood it, we knew that he was serious about the other half of the statement:
At lunchtime I asked the noble Baroness a question and a large number of my colleagues were disappointed that I did not receive an answer. Therefore, I shall ask my question again. We welcome and strongly support the right of the Prime Minister and his ministerial and parliamentary colleagues to choose schools which select on the basis of interview and/or examination--to choose the best school for their children. We would advocate that for all parents. However, I want to know what defence the noble Baroness has for saying that that is all right for Mr Blair, for his ministerial colleagues and for his parliamentary colleagues, but it is not all right for all the other parents up and down this land. That question really must be answered. If it is not, it betrays a level of hypocrisy not only that we deem to be present but that the Government defend shamelessly.
Selection also exists within the system, with interviews, auditions and testing for music, dance, sport, science and technology, and for special needs children. What is so sinful about making a special arrangement for children of high academic ability? Why single them out? Why discriminate against them? I believe that this represents discrimination, positively, against a group of young people who will be denied a choice. If the Secretary of State and the noble Baroness are to be taken at their word, are not really interested, want to put this debate behind them and believe that what happens to grammar schools is a matter for people at local level, why do they say time and time again that they do not approve of selection and that there will be no selection by interview or by examination under a Labour Government? If the parents in other grammar schools vote as they did at Ripon, it will continue. Are they some kind of pariah in the system that is not agreed to by the noble Baroness?
Yesterday we had an interesting debate on this side of the House with the Liberals, whom I criticised for being inconsistent in their support for selection, national and local. We said that we knew Liberal Democrats who were actively and in many cases overtly supporting their grammar schools, and we had to remind them that in Parliament Liberal Democrats always vote against selection. I looked up Hansard, and found that I had wrongly accused the noble Lord, Lord Tope. It was to his noble friend Lady Maddock that I said:
My final point is as follows. Almost every time we have this kind of discussion the noble Baroness prays in aid a question as to whether we have a serious interest in raising standards. I do. I applaud diversity,
But I wish to tell the noble Baroness that I have been in this business for a very long time, using my energies to help support policies for raising standards. The greatest opposition to the work over the 18 years when we were in power was twofold. The Labour Opposition in both Houses opposed the setting up of CTCs, specialist schools, the introduction of the national curriculum, assessment and testing, grant-maintained schools and devolution of budgets. They did so tooth and nail, all the way down the line. Much of that has now been adopted as Labour Party policy.
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