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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 173:

After section 106 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c. 31) (ballot regulations: eligibility of parents to request or vote in ballot) there is inserted—
Where a petition of parents has been initiated, or a ballot held and no change to admissions arrangements has been agreed, no further ballot may take place within a period of six years from the initiation of the petition.""

The noble Baroness said: This amendment will dispel any amity between these Benches and the Government Benches. It is an important amendment, and it gives the Government the opportunity to end the vendetta against grammar schools. A sword of Damocles has hung—and continues to hang—over grammar schools. There has been a war of attrition against some schools, taking the form either of threatening a petition or of actually gaining one. In the case of one school, there was indeed a ballot.

The Government do not believe that there should be petitions and ballots to determine the fate of city technology colleges, academies or specialist schools,

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all of which, in one way or another, select their pupils. Why single out grammar schools? There is no logic in that. Although no grammar school has, to date, been closed as a result of the Government's policy, there has been disruption, there is anxiety, and precious time and energy has been spent on dealing with challenges and potential challenges. Once a group—however small—of people who object philosophically to the existence of grammar schools becomes active in an area, there is uncertainty and disquiet.

Why are grammar schools singled out for such treatment? Is it because they select? So do city technology colleges, academies and specialist schools. Is it because they select academically able pupils? If so, why should bright children be discriminated against, when those who are talented in sport, science, technology, the arts, music and other subjects do not receive such treatment? Why do the Government support specialist schools for music, art, dance? The department supports some very élitist schools of ballet and music. I approve of all of that, but there seems to be some inconsistency. We allow an élite in some of the subjects that I mentioned, but, somehow, there is discrimination against academically able children.

One argument that one hears is that there are only about 166 grammar schools. There is debate over whether it is 166 or 164, but I shall not argue about that. Some ask why, as there are only 166 schools, there should be so much fuss. That is what Mr Blunkett said, when he was Secretary of State. However, there are far fewer city technology colleges—about 15—and there are even fewer academies. So the argument that is based on the fact that there are only 166 grammar schools is no argument at all. It is pure politics—the politics of envy.

There has always been an aversion to allowing bright children—particularly those from less advantaged homes—to get their feet on the ladder into schools that provide for them. The other day, I read, out of interest, the CVs of noble Lords—on the Government Benches as well as the other Benches. Many noble Lords have enjoyed a grammar school education. There is nothing more wicked than for someone to enjoy a facility and then close the door behind him and deny it to others.

We are also told that the Government are concerned about increasing access to university for bright young people from poorer backgrounds. Grammar schools are especially successful at preparing such young people for entry into higher education. They have traditionally been successful at doing that, and they are still successful at it. I reject the idea that we should, in any way, disrupt the existence of such schools.

We know that the policy is a sop. Although there is a dichotomy between what the Liberals do locally and what they do nationally, those on the Liberal Benches made it clear that, had they been the parents of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, they would have put in a clause that would have abolished grammar schools altogether. They made no secret of that, and I accept that, although there is a tension between that and what individual Liberals do locally.

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Even so, why is there such a vendetta against people who follow their abilities and aptitudes into appropriate education? It is inexplicable.

My amendment is cost-free. It would allow grammar schools to continue to exist without the constant annual threat of disruption. It would also allow the continuance of one sector of education that has served this country well for hundreds of years. I beg to move.

Baroness David: I do not believe that at this time of night and at this stage of the Bill it is the moment to start a debate about selection and the success of comprehensive schools. However, I agree with the noble Baroness on one point: the present system is not working at all well and there is a possibility of making it work a little better.

I should like to see the end of grammar schools. I do not believe that they have all the benefits the noble Baroness describes and I believe that the systems of petitions and so forth should be stopped. I suggest that the threshold for calling a ballot as distinct from starting a petition should be lowered so that parents can have a say on local grammar school admissions. At present they appear to be denied a choice. The amendment would stop for six years a further attempt to start a parent petition.

Do the Government believe that they can change the present arrangements so that they are fairer and parents can have a better say? The present system does not work.

Baroness Blatch: Was the noble Baroness agreeing that there should be a six-year moratorium, which my amendment calls for?

Baroness David: Six years will stop parents having any say for a long time. I should like the system to be changed.

Lord Lucas: There appears to be scope for a mid-way between the noble Baroness, Lady David, and my noble friend. If it were made easier to hold a ballot and then afterwards there were a long moratorium, that would be sensible from all points of view. We have a system in place and I do not see the Government changing it, but having a continual guerrilla war is not good for the parents who are complaining or for the schools which are being "got at". We need to have the matter decided, as in Ripon, get it out of the way and get everyone existing together in a happier frame of mind. If progress could be made in that direction, I should be delighted.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I recall the Minister saying at Second Reading that she had not had the privilege of meeting the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley. I have had the great privilege of knowing the noble Lord for 47 years and have debated with him on and off throughout that period. When I saw him in the Chamber earlier today, I immediately asked myself why he was here and I am sorry that he left before we

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reached this debate. He and I even got so far as to contest a place on the executive of the National Union of Students.

Politicians enjoy bust-ups and therefore I understand why people want to have the kind of contest that is involved in this matter. Furthermore, I realise that there are strong feelings on both sides. However, my experience of the British people is that they are less enthusiastic about having permanent bust-ups and would rather that politicians did not have them so often. My proof of that is the astonishing boredom which develops during general elections. In their third week people are longing for them to end so that there will not be another for five years. Most importantly, in the human condition uncertainty is a profound source of demoralisation and it seems to me to be a very bad thing to produce such a degree of uncertainty on a constant basis.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I share with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, a sadness that my noble friend Lord Hattersley is not with us in the Chamber—he may suddenly reappear—because I know that he would want to engage in this debate.

I intend to reflect far more on the essence of the amendment, but I do so because this Chamber has had the opportunity to debate these issues at great length and I do not wish to reopen that debate on this Bill and this particular clause.

All of us in this Chamber are striving to provide the best education system we can for every child in the country. That unites us. What divides us is the means by which we seek to achieve that. I had the benefit of a grammar school education. I am the first and only woman in my family to have gone to university and I hope that my daughter will be the second. I watched so many of my friends fail their 11-plus and fail to enjoy the benefits. They were men and women I considered to be as bright as I was. We had a system which said, "If you go to grammar school you are this and if you go somewhere else you are that and the 'that' is not as good as the 'this'". That is why I, as an individual as well as a Minister, philosophically do not support selection by ability at 11.

That does not mean that I do not value diversity. I believe that all Members of the Committee will agree with diversity of ability within our society: that people who can dance should go to the Royal Ballet School and that people who can play instruments or sing like angels should go to music schools. Many people can do things which I cannot do, whether that is fixing the plumbing—which I certainly cannot do—or creating a building, because we are all different. We are striving for an education system which values that difference and which values and enables us all to grow and develop. For me, that is the comprehensive system, but for other Members of the Committee it may be a different system. That is where I stand and from where I cannot move.

The clause makes two changes. First, it makes a change to the moratorium period of five years from the date on which the ballot result is announced to six

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years from the date on which the petition is initiated. We have considered that matter carefully and believe that in practice it will take the better part of a year for campaigners to gather names for a petition, for a ballot company to check validity, and for a ballot to be held. Therefore, we believe that in that respect the clause would have no practical effect.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the new clause would introduce a new moratorium in the event of an unsuccessful petition when a ballot had not been held. We have said that we want parents to be in the driving seat on this issue and it is right that when a ballot clearly demonstrates local support for the existing admission arrangements, as in Rippon, for example, the school concerned should enjoy a period of stability. That is why our procedures allow a five-year moratorium on further campaigns.

However, where there has been no ballot and therefore no expression of local feeling, we do not believe it can be right to deny parents the opportunity to reconsider the issue. It is possible for the new clause to leave the system open to abuse. Someone would only have to register a petition with a ballot company and then without collecting a single signature during the year, that person would be able to prevent any attempt in the next five years to gauge support among local parents. We believe that introducing a provision which would open the door to such potential abuse cannot be right.

Grammar school ballot arrangement were debated in great detail during the passage of the School Standards and Framework Act and I believe that all sides of your Lordships' House had great opportunity to put their arguments forward. We continue to believe that the arrangements currently in place strike a sensible balance between the stability that schools need and the parent's right to express a view. We believe that it represents the best way forward. I am grateful to the noble Baroness because the amendment has given us time to reflect on that further, but we are still firmly of that view. I hope that she will feel persuaded to withdraw the amendment.

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