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Selection in Education

6.6 p.m.

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.

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"My noble friend the Minister for Education and Employment said in the other place last night that we would restore that position in the Commons following the Lords' vote to end balloting. We fully respect the vote of parents in Ripon, but it is hard to see how it could be taken as an expression of views in other areas any more than a by-election vote is an expression of the views of those in every other constituency in the land. One ballot should never be allowed to pre-empt the decisions of others with very different electorates.

    "While the Opposition keep re-running the debates of the sixties, we are focused on improving standards through diversity and excellence in our education system as a whole. The Government have already significantly extended diversity. We have now 480 specialist schools approved, 250 beacon schools. We have brought in new voluntary aided schools from the independent sector for Jewish, Muslim and Sikh children. The Excellence in Cities programme is focusing targeted resources in inner-city secondaries in London and five other major cities. We have been ready to tackle failure in inner-city schools, where the party opposite simply stood on the sidelines. As a result, failing schools are being turned around in 17 months now rather than 25 previously.

    "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.

    "So, yes, we will leave the decision on grammar schools to parents. That has been our policy for nearly five years. It is not this side that is confused

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    about policy but the Opposition. The Conservative spokeswoman in the House of Lords yesterday sought to encourage the establishment of new grammar schools with an amendment which was defeated. Yet on 1st October 1999, the honourable Lady opposite told the Times Educational Supplement:

    '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'.

"When it had the chance to improve our schools, the party opposite let down millions of children. As Secretary of State, I am determined that all children have the equality of opportunity to fulfil their potential, not uniformity that treats every pupil the same. That is why I am willing to leave decisions on grammar schools to parents locally and why I have no intention of shifting my focus from that of driving up standards".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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.

Secondly, I refer to one of the lines in the Statement which the noble Baroness repeated:

    "It is not this side that is confused about policy, but the Opposition".

At the weekend, almost every single newspaper in this country was also confused. The statements of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment were widely welcomed in most newspapers but they created some puzzlement in others. However, among people up and down the land who have a connection with grammar schools--the staff, the parents and the pupils--there was elation because of words such as "end of hostilities against grammar schools", "drawing a line in the sand", "putting these arguments

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behind us" and "arguments about selection are now a thing of the past". There was a great deal of excitement. I wonder what the noble Baroness will say to many of the staff and parents who have been in touch to say how disappointed they are today.

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.

Mr Martin Morys, headmaster of Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School, said:

    "It was with enormous relief that I heard the Ripon result. I thought that the end was in sight when I saw today's papers".

But the message from the Secretary of State today is that the end is not in sight and that the war of attrition must go on.

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:

    "There will be no selection, either by interview or examination".

That is what he said and that is what we understand him to have meant and to be true. However, it is not true. Ministers' children are being selected by interview as we speak. Ministers' children are enjoying selective education as we speak. Some of them have been selected by interview and others by examination under a Labour Government; indeed, not only under

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a Labour Government but belonging to a Labour Government. The level of hypocrisy here is absolutely breathtaking.

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:

    "Does the noble Baroness know that some Liberal Democrats support some of their local grammar schools around the country? Does that sit easily with what she has just said?"

The answer came:

    "The noble Baroness will know that we support different things locally from what we do nationally."--[Official Report, 10/6/98; col.1048.]

There it is. I said that I would find it.

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,

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choice, beacon schools, city technology colleges, specialist schools, bilateral schools, grammar schools and comprehensive schools. All are good, good because diversity and choice are there for all parents.

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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