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Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I rise to say only that I am delighted that the Minister is listening to these arguments. I look forward to seeing her further proposals.

[Amendment No. 17 not moved.]

6.30 p.m.

Lord Peston moved Amendment No. 18:

"( ) No order made in this Chapter shall enable the Secretary of State (in relation to England) or the National Assembly of Wales (in relation to Wales) to introduce or permit the introduction of selection by ability in any schools in receipt of public funds."

The noble Lord said: We have had some extremely interesting debates on the amendments so far where, although there is still some controversy, there seems to have been a considerable meeting of minds. I now take the Committee into an area where I believe that philosophically we will diverge very strongly indeed. The amendment relates to selection and comprehensive education.

I declare an interest. I have devoted more than 30 years of my life to campaigning for comprehensive education. My children went to comprehensive schools even though my friends at Highgate at the time—not all of them, but quite a lot—talked about "sacrificing your children" and so on. Anyone who knows my children will know that the word "sacrifice" does not apply to them at all.

I was heartened by my noble friend the Minister when, at Second Reading, she averred her commitment to comprehensive education. A similar statement has been made by my right honourable friend the present Secretary of State. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, we are discussing a Bill which one day will be an Act of Parliament. Therefore, what specific Ministers or specific Secretaries of State say at this time is of no relevance whatever. We are discussing the broad generic concept of "a" Secretary of State, whoever he or she may be.

Even bearing that in mind—and here I must be very acerbic indeed—I should have thought that, after five years of a Labour Government with two massive majorities, by now all grammar schools would have gone. Although there are not many grammar schools left, if I had had my way they certainly would all have gone. I regarded them as a blot on the educational landscape 30 years ago; I still regard their contribution

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to the education system viewed as a whole as destructive, not constructive. But I accept defeat on that. If this Labour Government with this majority are not going to get rid of grammar schools, I cannot imagine that I shall live to see a Labour Government who will.

My concern, therefore, is what the Bill will enable, in the abstract sense, a future Secretary of State to do. On reading the Bill, I cannot see that the Bill does other than empower a future Secretary of State—doctrinal though I may regard such a person—to say, "We believe that an innovation that will raise standards and improve our education system would be one that reintroduced selection by ability". I can see nothing in the Bill to stop that if the Secretary of State were to argue along those lines. I do not want to put the idea into the heads of those who have not thought as cleverly as I have that that is how they may argue, but in the Bill I cannot see anything that could remotely stop such a Secretary State.

My noble friend replying that she does not intend to do it simply is not an answer to the question. In her response I wish to hear my noble friend say one of two things: either that I do not understand the Bill—which I entirely accept; I have said that I am having difficulties with it—or that it could not possibly happen. But if I understand the Bill correctly, a future Secretary of State could do this on the grounds that it was innovative and beneficial. We would then have to amend the Bill—exactly on these or, with better draftsmen's ideas, other lines—so that no Secretary of State could reintroduce reselection on the grounds that it was an innovation that he or she thought was advantageous.

I reassure my noble friend that I am still sticking to my policy; this is a probing amendment. I have no intention of seeking a vote on comprehensives until Report stage, but at least one Member of the Committee will one day go on record as supporting in the Lobbies comprehensive education. I beg to move.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I oppose the Bill on the grounds that it gives too much power to the Secretary of State. If the interpretation of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is correct, I would welcome the chance for the Secretary of State to improve many of the disadvantages that exist currently in English education.

Most of Europe will be amazed that the battles of 40 years ago are still going on in the English legislature. "Selection by ability" is a rather general term. It is like saying, "All Catholics are wrong", or, "All Marxists are devils". What it really means is that people should be educated according to their potential. The noble Lord and I share the ideal that every pupil in this country is entitled to a general education. But there comes a time when some want to be economists like the noble Lord, some want to be historians like me, some want to be plumbers, some want to be electricians and so on. They are all entitled to a training that allows them to fulfil their potential.

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This occurs in France, in Holland and the Netherlands, in Germany and in Austria. In Germany, for example, people move between the two systems without the bitterness of the kind of class war that the noble Lord describes. If the Secretary of State decided that people over 16 should move in a direction where their particular potential could be realised, that would not be selection by ability. If he or she further decided that they should, for reasons of economy and specialisation, go to specialist institutions—as they do in France and Germany—he or she should be entitled to do so. The noble Lord is being dinosaur-like in the field of education in seeking to deny the Secretary of State this power.

It is interesting that when East Germany joined the West it abandoned comprehensive education, which it had had for a long time, except in Brandenberg and part of Berlin. It was egalitarian—everyone had the choice—but only 9 per cent of Germany followed comprehensive education.

Dare I say that it is somewhat insular to talk in those terms—terms that I have not heard since the 1960s? I speak as chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association. Many of our schools have beacon status awarded by the Government. I deplore the amendment. I admire the noble Lord in many respects; and I am sorry that he is rather like a man who still believes that the earth is flat.

Baroness Walmsley: I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The commitment of these Benches to the principle of comprehensive education is well known. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, this has nothing to do with class warfare but a great deal to do with standards. The contribution of comprehensive education to the increase in educational standards in this country over decades is very well known to those who know about education. With those few words, I support the amendment.

Lord Lucas: In the interests of balance, as the Government Front Bench will undoubtedly support selection, I should say something in support of the comprehensive principle. I entirely share the affection of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for comprehensive schools. That is where my children are, and I am delighted by it. The way that comprehensive schools work—when they work well—is entirely admirable and is the best solution, where that is possible, to organising schools and education.

But I do not support the noble Lord in the wording of his amendment. Clearly you have to have some schools where you select by ability. If you are going to have a school for young footballers as a football academy, or for people specialising in dance or music and so on, then you have to select by that ability. If we are to offer those kinds of opportunities, clearly selection has a place.

Selection also has a place at some age. At the moment, we allow selection at 16. One can find admirable examples of where that works extremely

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well. The noble Lord may know the Cambridge sixth-form colleges. There is no formal division between the two, but one has developed as the academic college and the other has developed as the college with breadth. Selection in the process of getting kids into Hills Road does not hurt at all because it allows it to offer a much more focused curriculum on the straightforward academics, whereas Long Road has a much broader and, in many ways, more interesting offering without having the academic hurdles to get over. Such selection has allowed that kind of differentiation to take place.

My objection to a grammar school system, such as is practised in Kent or Buckinghamshire, is that children are not developed at age 11. They have not begun to show their faces. My son is 14, and even at that age I find it hard to know whether he will turn out to be an academic or a rock musician. If he were forced to make the choice at 11, it would be daffy, and I would not wish it upon him to have to make the choice at 14; 16 is probably the right age at which to allow selection by ability. So I see several roles for selection by ability, but I do not share the passion of some in my party for the extension of it. I line myself up behind my idol in these matters, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, who did so much good work in introducing the comprehensive system.

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