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Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Shephard of Northwold for introducing this debate, which has allowed us the opportunity to consider the future of our education system, including some key aspects of the Government's White Paper. Like the noble Lords, Lord Dearing and Lord Clarke, I feel that I have learned much from all the excellent speeches.

In particular, I want to re-emphasise something which my noble friend said in her opening remarks and which I and my colleagues believe in passionately. In essence, you can build great school buildings, devise all kinds of structures and introduce different admissions procedures, but at the end of the day, as my noble friend Lady Shephard and other noble Lords have emphasised, what actually goes on in the classroom, the quality of leadership and teaching in a school, and, above all, the calibre of the head, are what influence the quality of a school.

The quality of education in schools needs significant improvement. Since 1997 we have seen a raft of legislation and initiatives and strategy documents. So
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the question is: will genuine improvement in our education system follow this latest White Paper? Our approach to the proposals are straightforward. Wherever the Government promote rigour, encourage discipline and give schools more autonomy and parents more choice, we will support them.

So far, this White Paper has had a tough life. The Cabinet was divided on the proposals right from the start. We understand that 5,000 copies of the first White Paper were trashed, so what we are considering is really mark 2. This helps to explain why so many commentators have felt that they were reading two documents. In many ways they are. Mark 1 was drafted by the education ministerial team with the blessing of the Prime Minister—who, incidentally, said that its contents were pivotal to the future of our education system—and mark 2 by the Deputy Prime Minister and his fellow traditionalists who still believe that government control and the dead hand of bureaucracy is best for our children's future.

It is surprising that some of those traditionalists, including the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, are not in their places. After all, they are in Parliament today to launch a book. This debate is the opportunity for them to put their case for opposing their Government's White Paper directly to the Minister in their House. We would benefit from hearing their views.

All the evidence shows that standards rise when schools are free to innovate, free to diversify and free to specialise. What we want to see, therefore, is a government sticking to their mission, as first drafted in mark 1, to do just that: free up our schools, give them more autonomy and parents more choice. Too many children are leaving school without basic literacy or numeracy. Over one-third of adults in the UK do not have a basic school-leaving qualification—double the proportion in Canada and Germany. As the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, said, that is a scandal. Therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said, there is much, much more to be done.

In their quest to improve the quality of education in our schools, the Government have encouraged the adoption of specialism. Schools are already allowed to select 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude in just four of the 10 specialisms. That means that a school can select by aptitude in modern languages or music, but not by ability in maths or science. It is interesting to note that, while the Government continue to say that they are against selection, they never explain how pupils are chosen—"choose" being another word for "select"—to make up this 10 per cent on the basis of their aptitude for a specialism. Are they tested? Are they interviewed? Do they perform in front of someone? In addition, the Oxford Dictionary makes it clear that "aptitude" means,

This false distinction between aptitude and academic ability is central to the Government's whole approach to the admissions policy. It is a distinction without a difference. Trying to make sense of it was described by the Chief Schools Adjudicator as,
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We must cut through this nonsense of saying that you can select according to whether you are good at sport or music but not maths or science by allowing schools to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by whatever their aptitude or ability in whatever specialism the school has adopted. Schools must become their own admissions authorities, so that parents will be able to apply to a school direct for admission there. Schools must be able to set out their own approach to how they handle questions such as the allocation of places if they are over-subscribed and the treatment of siblings.

The current code should be slimmed down and liberalised, although I accept that there has to be some national admissions framework within which schools operate. It should, for example, allow schools to make parents' willingness to sign a home-school contract a condition of admissions. However, the code should also make it clear that there will be no return to the 11-plus. We on these Benches remain committed to existing grammar schools, but recognise that there is no point in reopening the debate about grammar schools in parts of the country from which they have long since disappeared.

The preoccupation with admissions policy shows what has gone wrong with the education debate in this country. It rests on the assumption that there is a fixed number of good school places to go round, and the only question is how they should be allocated—for every gainer there must be a loser. There should be more good school places in total. That is why we on these Benches are focusing on raising standards in schools across the country. As my noble friend Lord Lucas said, everyone should have the chance to go to a good school.

Creating more good school places also requires a radical change of approach to the provision of schools. We believe that it should be easier for popular schools to expand if they wish. We want to see measures in the Government's Education Bill to give schools more freedom, rather than less. It would be disastrous for our nation's education if the Prime Minister retreated in the face of pressure from Labour traditionalists so that we ended up with no significant new freedoms for schools and, indeed, extra local authority controls over them.

In the White Paper mark 2, we have a sense that the role of LEAs is set to remain strong, which brings me to a key question for the Minister. Is it possible for schools to have real autonomy when LEAs control their budgets? That question has already been put by my noble friend Lady Shephard, so I hope that the Minister feels able to reply. Real autonomy must mean schools controlling their own finances.

I am also concerned that, on the "Today" programme on Radio 4 today, Jacqui Smith MP said that the Government intend to translate the White Paper into a Bill that everyone wants. Does that explain the lack of consistency in the mark 2 document?
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The Government are also sending out confusing signals over trust schools. The White Paper demonstrates that education legislation will provide trust schools with freedoms and the power to "innovate". In an answer that the Minister gave to me on the Floor of the House on 16 November, he indicated that,

Will the Minister explain what that means? How will legislation enable local authorities to facilitate greater freedoms for trust schools?

There must be more clarity about the role of local authorities and their powers of intervention. The recent National Audit Office report Improving Poorly Performing Schools in England illustrated that some local authorities,

If local authorities are to be the gatekeepers to new schools and standards, will the Minister confirm that schools will not be burdened by local authority control? It is telling that the authors of the Compass report, while seeking to further empower local authorities, themselves state that some local authorities,

The Prime Minister has attempted to turn the education debate into a political argument about selection and academic ability. Let us make no mistake. The Government are in favour of selection on the basis of aptitude, and setting in schools is still selection but inside the school gates. There is clear evidence that setting, subject by subject, benefits all students across the ability range. However, only around 40 per cent of lessons are setted by ability. Setting must involve good education provision for all sets and it must be flexible so that pupils who improve can progress, and struggling pupils can have extra help in a good learning environment. Lower sets must be provided with high standards of education as well.

The White Paper focuses a great deal on involving parents with a school's ethos and admissions. This is an important relationship to develop, and we welcome that. However, as we have said before in your Lordships' House, children in care who are not represented by their parents in this capacity—who may not have parents at all—must be provided with the same access to education and qualifications as the majority.

If we are to make real progress we need honesty in this debate. That is why I am disappointed that today figures have been published that clearly show a blatant massaging of statistics. The Secretary of State has refused to release statistics on how many pupils in each school passed maths and English until after the publication of other performance data. Publication of those results is apparently due tomorrow. So the figures must be somewhere in the Secretary of State's
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office. Will the Minister therefore please refrain from telling us that we have just had the biggest single rise in GCSE results in a decade and give us the true picture?

In conclusion, can we believe this week's press reports that the education legislation is to be delayed? Will the Minister indicate when the Education Bill is expected to come to this House? Our education system cannot afford for legislation to be delayed by the Prime Minister now because he wants to protect one of his Ministers. Our children are too important.

2.07 pm

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