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Baroness Blatch: I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady David, does not believe that this is a good time to start an argument. We will probably be starting arguments at 11 o'clock tonight on some issues and I regard 7.20 p.m. as almost morning in terms of how we conduct business in this place.
I am also disappointed in the Minister's comment that as the matter has been debated at length in this House, she has no intention of debating it again. We return to some issues again and again. The fact that a matter has been debated once does not mean that it is done and dusted and should never be debated again. The meritsor demerits, as I see themof an issue should be revisited because no government have the wisdom of getting things right all the time.
I turn to the issue of making decisions at the age of 11 years. I agree that that is a debatable point; I have always thought so. There is a debate to be had about whether decisions should be made at the age of 11, 12 or 13. We know that in the independent sector decisions are made at 13, which those schools regard as a better stage for children to move from what are essentially junior into senior schools.
But the fact that there is a constant, almost political and philosophical objection to bright young people being taught appropriately in a grammar school setting seems to me to be absurd. I really must ask the noble Baroness to tell me why it should be that in an area with a city technology college, which creams off many children, and where three, four and sometimes five applications are received for each placeand parents whose children are unlucky and do not receive a place in those schools probably feel as disappointed as those whose children did not pass the 11-plusthere is no system in place for local parents to take a view on whether such a school should continue to cream off the 20 per cent of successful applicants who are fortunate enough to get a place.
I certainly do not argue that there should be a system in place to do that, but I wish to put a straight question to the noble Baroness: why should grammar schools be on the receiving end of this rather pernicious system of petitioning and balloting while, for example, city technology colleges are not?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: We shall not allow any more city technology colleges to be created under the Bill. The noble Baroness has raised an important point which I shall take back to the department.
However, I am concerned about the need to ensure that all our children receive the high-quality education they deserve, appropriate to their needs. On that we are agreed. Where we disagree is that there should be one system which declares that, at the age of 11, a decision is made that certain children are able to move forward, while children who may not have developed fully at that age are left disappointed. I think that "disappointment" is an underestimate of the feeling of some children who fail the 11-plus examination and their families. In a sense, it felt as though the system had written them off. I cannot support a system that is designed to do that.
The noble Baroness raised an issue with regard to the age at which children develop. We can discuss that matter and I shall be happy to return to it on Report. But it is important that I make our position absolutely
Baroness Blatch: That response was interesting and extremely revealing, on two counts. First, I turn to the matter of city technology colleges. Ministers have gone on the record lauding them. Ministers have gone on the record congratulating my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking for initiating the city technology colleges. They have remained a part of the patchwork offering variety in educational provision. Indeed, the Minister's colleagues in another place have quite rightly built on the model of the city technology colleges in their plans for specialist schools. They are looking at ways of conferring greater economic freedom and autonomy at the school level. However, the noble Baroness says, "We have had enough of them and there will not be any more".
Secondly, I turn to grammar schools. Ministers on the Government Benches both here and in another place have said: "We are neutral on grammar schools and we take no view on whether they stay or they go". Indeed, the right honourable Mr Blunkett has commented that, "there are only 166 of them and I have other things to worry about in education". However, the noble Baroness has revealed her petticoat on this matter in that she has argued against them philosophically. She has argued against their existence and why we should have them. She has argued that they are wrong.
The noble Baroness made a comment with which I absolutely agree: all children should have the best possible quality of education appropriate to their needs. That is what I am arguing for here. A very bright child living in a part of the country where the schools are not able to offer the kind of highly academic, fast-stream education appropriate to that child's needs has nowhere to go. If there are some grammar schools, or if such a child could take advantage of something like the assisted places scheme to take it to an independent school, at least those provided an avenue. The latter scheme has already been denied to such children. Furthermore, over time, however painful it might be under the pernicious system supported by the noble Baroness and her colleagues, they would like to see the demise of our grammar schools. That is lamentable.
Lord Baker of Dorking: Before the Minister rises to reply, perhaps I may commiserate with her in her moral dilemma. She has made it clear that she loathesperhaps that is too strong a wordgrammar schools. She said that she attended such a school, and that she does not want to see a system of selection at the age of 11. I think she used words along the lines of, "very harmful to our education system".
If the Minister really believes what she has said and really believes that this is how she wants to improve the education system, then it is up to her to move an amendment. But of course she will not do so. The Government introduced a proposal to hold ballots because they wanted to shift the moral dilemma from the Government to some other body. They did not themselves want to be responsible for making the decision. They did not want to stand by their principles. Instead they declared that, "We must find some other body that can make the decision for us". Hence the introduction of what in my view is a rigged system of parental ballots.
However, that system has failed. It has failed not marginally, but totally and completely. In one ballot held in Ripon, those who, like the noble Baroness, Lady David, wanted grammar schools to be abolished, campaigned vigorously in that vein. That campaign was decisively rejected. In many other places they have not even been able to get sufficient numbers of people interested in the matter. Do not the Government realise that when something has failed, then they should perhaps recognise that? When they are in a hole, they should stop digging.
The ballot system has failed and it would be better for it to be forgotten and much better for the legislation to be repealed. Then there would be no moral dilemma for the Minister. Although she may believe it, it would no longer be government policy.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: It is very kind of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, to worry about my moral dilemma, but I do not feel that I have one. The reason I say that is because I made it clear that what I do not agree with is the 11-plus examination. The Government too have made their position clear on that. We believe that, as far as we possibly can, we should put parents in the driving seat when it comes to education. We know that parents want to do what is best for their children.
On the question of the grammar school system, we do not want to spend our time dismantling a system because we believe that parents in the relevant areas should have a right to say what kind of system they wish to see in place. That is a straightforward attitude.
The noble Lord may say that the ballot system has failed, but when considering the Ripon experience, surely those who support the grammar school system should be pleased with that result. We think that we have in place a system that represents the best way forward. We shall leave it there. It is for parents to use. Those who wish to do so can take advantage of it. The system creates stability.
I recognise the comments made by the noble Baroness with regard to city technology colleges. Of course they are independent schools. We have built on their experience in terms of our academies; namely, looking at the different ways in which schools can be funded. However, academies will be bound by the admission arrangements in place in the local education authority.
We believe that we have a consistent view in this area and so I have no moral dilemma. However, what I am not prepared to do is to start ripping apart structures and thus preventing parents from taking the opportunity to have their say. We believe that we have the balance right.
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