Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Committee will no doubt want to be convinced that in the Bill the Government are taking positive and constructive steps to meet this criticism. I hope that they will not only accept this amendment but set out a convincing case that will satisfy this Committee and the Committee on the Rights of the Child that they mean business in satisfying the needs of vulnerable children. I beg to move.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the amendment to which I have put my name, I wish to say how grateful I was to the Minister for rapidly arranging a meeting to amplify the points that he made in his letter to the noble Lord on 25 August. He and his team, in the person of Angela Overington, have been helpful in sending us again the current guidance to local authorities.

The amendment refers to vulnerable children of any kind, so I should make it clear that one group or another is not being singled out. The essential point of any guidance, and the reason why it should be mandatory, is that it must be specific about the different kinds of children who miss out on education and how differently to target them. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said so tellingly, Gypsy and Traveller children are perhaps the most significant of such groups in terms of the extraordinarily high proportion who do not get to school in the first place, especially secondary school, and drop out or are excluded if they are there. As the Minister knows, the Children's Commissioner is looking at Gypsy and Traveller children as part of her first inquiry into exclusion.

This apparently discriminatory outcome needs specific attention. As long ago as the Plowden report on primary education-is that over 40 years ago?-targeted measures in respect of Gypsy and Traveller children were called for, and they seem to come and go in fits and starts, which do not achieve an acceptable solution. I need hardly describe in this place the importance of school education for finding work, fitting into society and becoming useful, law-abiding citizens, quite apart from self-fulfilment. The Ofsted report, Children Missing from Education, published last August, suggested that local authorities struggle to track pupils who are out of school.

The rapidly disappearing Travellers Education Service had some success. In 1997 it was estimated that only 5 per cent of Gypsy and Traveller children stayed on for key stage 4. The figure now is closer to 50 per cent, but schools that are focused on "the importance of teaching", which we all support, cannot reasonably be expected also to secure the inclusion of all marginalised children, some newly arrived, some unfamiliar with or fearful or mistrustful of education. If local authorities had the sort of safety-net responsibility that the amendment provides, schools would remain free to concentrate on their core business.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC160

The Minister told us in his letter that local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure the education of some vulnerable children-those with SEN, looked-after children and children in need, which is now a developmental criterion. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out, there is no duty to tackle the missing education of all vulnerable children, which would include Gypsy and Traveller children and others not in the above three classes. The current statutory guidance has a few passing references to Gypsy and Traveller children. Among 26 groups of children who might miss out, it lists mobile children such as those of families in the Army or of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. However, by no means all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are mobile, especially Roma. There are some other reasons why Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children who do not live in caravans still do not get schooling.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will accept this amendment and undertake that the accompanying guidance will define vulnerability so as to include Gypsies, Roma and Travellers as a specific group, as they are in law, and set out more developed measures to get them the education to which they have a right.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I support the amendment and pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for their longstanding advocacy for Gypsy and Roma children. I recall the noble Lord tabling a debate on the education of Gypsy and Traveller children 10 years ago.

I am also reminded by this debate that I once taught a nine year-old Traveller boy. What really comes back to me is how enthusiastic and keen he was to be a part of the group and one of the boys. I imagine that many of these young boys and girls want to be a part of a group, and it is tragic that this opportunity to bring them into society is so often lost.

If I understood correctly what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, I was concerned to hear that specialist services for these children may be being lost. Trust is very important. If these services have developed trust with those communities, it is very important to maintain that relationship.

There are also things that schools, if they are well informed, can do. For example, the special experience of Gypsy and Traveller children can be a bonus for the pupils generally. A boy from a Traveller community can talk about the involvement with animals or other activities that his community has and celebrate that with the other children. Alternatively, for example, a head teacher can involve the mother-it would usually be the mother-of a Gypsy or Traveller child. Even if she cannot write, she can help the child with his homework. The head teacher can ask the mother to put a sign by her son's work to say that that boy sat quietly for half an hour to do his homework. That is her job and she can communicate that to the head teacher. Therefore, it is possible to engage with those parents. It is possible to think about these things in a very constructive way, and I hope that the Minister can give a positive response to the amendment.

Baroness Hughes of Stretford: Before the Minister speaks, perhaps I may ask whether he will address a particular point in his summing up. The point raised

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC161

by my noble friend is very important in the light of the education system-or lack of an education system, if I may put it like that-that will arise if all the Government's changes go through. The very important question is: who will be responsible for looking after the very small groups of children who are, by definition, not very visible because they are small in number but are none the less, for all kinds of reasons that noble Lords have identified, very disadvantaged when it comes to taking up opportunities for education? Given that local authorities will not have any locus in local areas if the Government's objective of the majority of schools being academies and free schools comes to fruition, I should be grateful if, in responding, the Minister could say where responsibility will lie for looking at the achievement, or lack of it, of these small groups of children, working with schools in some way but without the power and leverage to do so. Who will ensure that schools do better by these very small groups of children? In the new world that the Government will take us into where academies are going to be everywhere and will not be focused on disadvantaged children, I cannot see where that responsibility will lie and where the leverage with individual schools to do better by these children will come from.

Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, it is clear from this debate-as has often been the case-that promoting the highest possible quality of education for the most vulnerable children in society is a subject dear to the heart of the Committee. We have set out in our schools White Paper, published last year, and more recently in our Green Paper on special educational needs and disability, our overall plans on how we want to achieve this,. These include the pupil premium, which will deliver an extra £2.5 billion a year by 2014 to support the education of the most disadvantaged children. My letter to my noble friend Lord Avebury on 25 August set out the overall the statutory framework and range of measures in place to support vulnerable children. In response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, the White Paper was absolutely clear that the local authority retains its responsibilities for vulnerable children, and the Bill does not affect its statutory duties in any way.

However, the nub of this debate is around Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, who are of particular concern to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and to my noble friend Lord Avebury. He is absolutely right that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils continue to underachieve significantly relative to their peers and are still much more likely to leave school without completing their formal education. This year, under one-quarter of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved level 4 in English and maths at the end of key stage 2, compared with 73 per cent of all pupils. At key stage 4, just 10.8 per cent of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, including English and mathematics, compared with about 55 per cent of all pupils. These are stark differences. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils have the worst attendance of any minority ethnic group and there is a marked decline in enrolment between primary and secondary school level, a point that has been made. They have the highest levels of permanent and fixed-term exclusions.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC162

Local authorities have a key role to play in addressing this issue. They are under a statutory duty to ensure that education is available for all children of compulsory school age that is appropriate to their age, ability, aptitudes and any special educational needs they may have. This duty applies regardless of a child's ethnicity, immigration status, mother tongue or rights of residence in a particular area.

Along with schools and colleges, local authorities have a range of safeguarding duties for vulnerable pupils, as well as duties to establish as far as possible the identities of those children of compulsory school age who are missing education. We are currently revising statutory guidance to clarify how local authorities can best carry out their duties to identify children who are missing education. I say to my noble friend that we expect to strengthen current references to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils in the revised guidance and I should be happy in due course to share that in draft form with him, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and anyone else who is interested.

It is also the case that Ministers in my department are working, under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a range of government departments to ensure that the range of inequalities faced by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are properly addressed. That working group expects to publish before the end of the year a report on how the Government will tackle the issue, including a package of measures designed specifically to raise educational aspirations, attainment and attendance. We are grateful to the work carried out by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller education stakeholder group, chaired by my noble friend Lord Avebury, for the contributions that it has made so far, and I look forward to working with the group over the coming weeks to develop further plans in that area.

7 pm

On children missing education, a point that my noble friend particularly emphasised, local authorities, maintained schools, further education and sixth-form colleges have safeguarding duties under Section 175 of the Education Act 2002. Crucially, under the 2006 education regulations, all schools are required to inform the local authority where a pupil fails to attend school regularly, where a pupil has been absent from school continuously for at least 10 days without permission or where a pupil has been removed from the school roll in specific circumstances. Indeed, failure by a school to comply with these provisions is an offence.

My noble friend is right to cite some concerns about how well these arrangements are working, so the Government are committed to reviewing those regulations and to tightening up and extending the circumstances in which schools must inform the local authority when a child is missing school or removed from the register. We will revise the statutory guidance to clarify how local authorities can best carry out their duties to identify children missing education.

I hope that this will provide my noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and others with some reassurance that there is an overall appropriate legal

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC163

framework and statutory guidance in place to support local authorities and other services in promoting the education of vulnerable children, and specifically that we are taking steps to try to address the educational challenges and inequalities that we all accept are faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. With that, I hope that my noble friend feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Avebury raised the question of virtual schools. Perhaps my mind was drifting as I listened to the Minister's reply but I did not hear him address that subject. Virtual schools provide an interesting way of dealing with genuine Traveller education and providing them with a consistent relationship with school that is not disrupted every time they move, and we should look to encourage that. Does the Minister have a view on this?

Lord Hill of Oareford: We are due to address virtual schools later. I think that my noble friend has an amendment on the subject so we can return to it then. I can respond more fully to my noble friend Lord Avebury at that juncture.

Baroness Benjamin: In the Minister's efforts to address this issue, could he please include parents? Parents are the key to the problem of these children not attending school. They are essential to making this successful. In my experience as a governor and a chair of governors of an academy where we had Gypsy and Roma children, the parents were the stumbling block. If you can get to them, part of this problem will be solved.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. It is good to hear about the work that his department is undertaking. I think that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, talk about the demise of specialist Gypsy, Roma and Traveller education services. Maybe the Minister briefly said something about that at the end of his response but, I am sorry, I did not quite catch it. If he could clarify what is going on with those services, I would be grateful.

I apologise if I misled the Committee in any way by describing myself as "teaching" this boy. I was running workshops in a school environment. I am not a teacher; I should make that quite clear.

Lord Avebury: In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the ring-fenced grant for the Travellers Education Service ceased in 2007, and the equivalent amount of money was made available in the general grant to local authorities for disadvantaged children as a whole. It was from that point onwards that local authorities started to see that there was money that they could use for other purposes and either made officials in the service redundant, in some cases, or did not replace them when they left. There has been a gradual process of running down that, as I said, if it is allowed to continue, will result in the complete disappearance of specific Traveller education services in a few years' time.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC164

What the noble Earl and my noble friend said about contact with parents is important. It was an essential feature of the Traveller education services; they managed to link the parents, the children and the schools, which is why they were effective. In the absence of these specialist services, I am afraid we will not have that advantage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, also reinforced the point about mobile children. We are talking not simply about those who still live in caravans and are peripatetic-that is a declining number. What I was talking about when I defined what I hoped the Minister would pick up on-the term "mobile child"-was a child who enters at a point other than the beginning of an academic phase and is therefore potentially disadvantaged because he or she has not hitherto received education or has received it very intermittently. If we could add such children to the definitions that were specified in the Minister's letter, it would go some way towards covering the children about whom we are particularly concerned.

However, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. We acknowledge the benefits of the pupil premium, which will cover many of the GRT minority. We believe that the revision of the guidance on CME will be effective but we have not seen it yet. I am grateful to my noble friend for mentioning the work of the DfE's stakeholder group, which has a meeting in the coming week at which I am sure we will want to discuss some of the matters that have been covered in today's debate. We are in the course of responding to the department's educational funding consultation. That will also have an impact on how we treat this group. I cannot promise that we will not return to this subject on Report. We have not dealt with all the matters that have been raised. Perhaps we shall cover some of them in the later debates, particularly on virtual schools, which have an important role to play here. However, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 123 withdrawn.

Clause 51 agreed.

Clause 52 : Academy arrangements: post-16 education and alternative provision

Amendments 123A and 123B

Moved by Lord Hill of Oareford

123A: Clause 52, page 42, line 32, leave out "and"

123B: Clause 52, page 42, line 34, at end insert ", and

( ) it is not an alternative provision Academy (see section 1C)."

Amendments 123A and 123B agreed.

Amendment 124

Moved by Lord Blackwell

124: Clause 52, page 42, line 39, at end insert ", and

"(c) it is specially organised to make special educational provision for the needs of pupils with high ability or aptitude for learning; or high ability or aptitude in musical, artistic or other specialist skills approved in guidance issued by the Secretary of State."

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC165

Lord Blackwell: My Lords, in moving Amendment 124 I shall speak also to Amendments 125 and 139 in the same group. These amendments return to the subject of providing appropriate education to meet the needs of pupils with a high ability or aptitude in learning or other specialist skills. We had a brief debate on this in the last day in Committee before the summer Recess. There was general support on all sides of the Grand Committee for the view that, despite the importance of providing appropriate education for high-ability children, the education system does not do this particularly well at the moment. We could do better.

It is important for several reasons. First, all children deserve the opportunity for educational excellence. It is also important for the national interest. The top few per cent of our children in ability and aptitude are those who go on to be, in many cases, the leaders in business, the arts and the sciences. If we are to compete globally, we cannot afford not to have our most able children educated to the highest international standards for the good of society as a whole.

It is also important for social equity reasons because, at the moment, we have an education system where the most able children from poorer backgrounds are often unable to achieve entry to schools that can meet their expectations, and the better schools in many parts of the country are accessible only to those who can afford to pay for them.

For all those reasons, it is important that we provide for the needs of the most able children. The amendments that we discussed at our last sitting concerned ways of imposing an obligation on schools to meet the needs of high-ability children and the possibility that academies might group together to provide common facilities and classes for groups of high-ability children-were there insufficient numbers in any one school to make that effective on a single-school basis.

My amendments take the same principle a step further by recognising that the needs of those children may be best be met by having an academy, covering an area, which specialises in providing for the needs of high-ability children. If we take a year group in any school of 150 to 200 and the top 5 per cent of the ability range, we are talking about seven to 10 children. Seven or 10 children are not enough to form a class that can devote the appropriate skills and resources to teaching that top-ability range. Academic research suggests that high-ability children perform best when they are taught in peer groups where the class size is 20 or more, but to achieve the appropriate use of resources, you often need a much larger group to devote the specialist teaching from which they can benefit.

The simple notion here is that the academies framework should be flexible enough to allow schools which are specialist academies providing for high-ability and high-aptitude children. They would not be narrowly defined by a local catchment area, because we would not want many of them, but I can imagine major cities or large towns having one or two. That would cope with those of the top few per cent of children who wanted to apply to go to those schools. There would not be a compulsory 11-plus; there would not be

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC166

compulsory entry; but they would be available for children of high ability who could benefit from them. That would enable children of whatever income level or background to have access to schools that could fulfil their potential.

I stress that I am thinking particularly about children from the less advantaged parts of our cities and country, who are at the moment disadvantaged. They are the children who may have high potential but whose local school is likely to be one of the less-well performing schools just because of the peer group and the circumstances of the school, whereas children of better-off parents may well be able to afford to move to a postcode where the average level of schooling is higher-or, of course, may be able to take advantage of private education. It is the children from poorer backgrounds whom our current system disadvantages, because in many parts of the country there is no provision for high-ability children to have a first-class academic education within a peer group of similarly able and motivated children within the state sector.

It is not just academic provision which is important here. We all know that children need confidence from the support of being in an environment where they are encouraged to raise their aspirations and lift their eyes to what they may achieve. What many of the grammar schools and direct-grant schools provided in the past for many of our generation was the ability for children from those less advantaged backgrounds to mix with children in a peer group that enabled them to realise that their horizons could be wider. They could aspire to reach the top of our professions and businesses, and, indeed, aspire to political careers. It is important that such academies are provided to meet the needs of able children from less privileged backgrounds.

7.15 pm

The amendment talks about aptitudes other than just for learning, and I mentioned in the amendment,

As noble Lords will know, a number of specialist independent schools in the country provide excellent education for children with, for example, high musical ability. Those schools are available only to those pupils whose parents can pay the fees, or who are able and lucky enough to get a scholarship. Presumably we would all think it is a good thing that there are specialist music schools in the country which provide for those very able children; why should those schools not be available-again, we would not need very many of them-for children with high musical or artistic skills whose parents cannot afford for them to go to the current independent schools?

Amendment 124 allows for the possibility that schools could be specialist in either academic or other skill areas. I should point out that the wording on the paper here, as it reached the list of amendments, has the word "and" at the end of it-"at end, insert ', and'". I only noticed going through it today that that word should probably have been "or". The amendment is not intended to limit the previous conditions under which academies can specialise: it is an additional opportunity. I hope noble Lords will not mind if I speak to it on that basis.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC167

Amendment 139 is a consequential amendment: if we are going to have schools which specialise in providing for high-ability children or children with specialist skills in some areas, then clearly those schools have to be able to select those children on the basis of their ability or aptitude. It does not require, and I would not specify, any particular age group. I think it is important that these schools can be flexible in terms of the age group in which people are recognised as having the appropriate talent. It does not specify how they select them. Obviously one would hope that they would be as innovative as possible in recognising underlying aptitude rather than just demonstrated results. However, it is important that schools which focus on the needs of high-ability children have some means of selecting them from those parents who wish to apply to have their children go to a free state school.

The last of the three amendments is Amendment 125. It goes one step further, in recognising that there are indeed many such schools in existence in the country, some of which were available to children paid for by the state in the past, but which moved into the private sector with the ending of the direct grant school system. Where such schools exist, if they want to return to the state sector and provide this kind of specialised selective education or academic education for children of high ability, why should we not allow them to move back, and into the status of academies? This amendment would allow them to do so. It seems to me almost beyond argument that, if we have schools that provide very high quality education for children of high ability which at the moment are available only to children whose parents can pay fees for that education, it must be hugely socially beneficial to allow those schools to be open to children whose parents cannot afford the fees. Why should we exclude 90 per cent of the children in the country from the best schools, if those schools want to open their doors and become part of the state sector? I hope that will have universal support.

My noble friend Lord Lucas has another amendment that I shall let him now speak to, which has a similar objective, although a different wording. I should be happy to support that also, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response on how the Government view such arrangements. I hope that it will be positive and that at Report he will be able to come back with the best form of wording to enable these objectives to be met. I beg to move.

Baroness Hughes of Stretford: My Lords, I am sure that all Members of the Committee are considering these issues because they share with me a desire to improve the opportunity of outcomes for all children, including high-ability children. However, there may well be-I think there is-a difference between some Members of the Committee about the most effective ways of doing that. In this sense, Amendment 124D, to which I am speaking, takes the opposite view to that just expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell.

Under the Academies Act 2010, a selective school converting to academy status can maintain its selective admissions policies. Amendment 124D would remove the ability for selective schools to maintain selective

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC168

policies on conversion. It would require any schools converting to academy status in future to have a comprehensive admissions policy upon that conversion.

I shall to cite three arguments in favour of our amendment. The first is on the basis of some of the evidence from international countries that are performing better than we are in education. Secondly, I wish to raise a point of principle and, thirdly, to look at the practical implications of the Government's proposals on the issue-and whether as a result of the Bill the current ability of schools to retain selection in moving to academy status would lead to an extension of schools with selection policies. I question whether that is what the Government want.

First, in terms of the evidence, particularly from Finland-one of the highest performing countries on the educational spectrum in the western world-it is interesting that the Minister, following a previous debate, sent me a letter talking about the evidence for reform at some length. He cited Finland and some of the attributes of its system, particularly school autonomy and accountability for performance. However, that letter did not in particular mention the important context of the Finnish system, as well as some other systems-for autonomy and accountability. It is a system that the Finnish Government and people take very seriously, whereby schools are comprehensive and that you can achieve improvements in the context of a system in which schools take from a broad spectrum of pupils and overlay on that system powerful mechanisms for autonomy and accountability. That is what produces the substantial improvements that have been seen in Finland. Therefore, if we are going to use evidence-and I support an evidence-based approach to policy-we ought to take all the evidence we have, including that evidence from Finland.

The second point is one of principle. The idea of a selective academy-not just what the previous Government were trying to achieve but what the current Government profess to want to achieve-is something of a contradiction in terms. Under Labour, academies could select only 10 per cent of their pupils-not on the basis of ability but of aptitude if the academy had a particular specialism. We believe-and in terms of what the Government have said to date, I cannot believe that they would not share this view; but I would welcome any contradiction to that effect-that academies should be comprehensive. If a selective school is to have the freedoms of an academy, it should by definition make a commitment to all the children in the local area and not simply cream off those whom it thinks are the most able. It should be committed to driving up the levels of attainment of all students, which means admitting those children whose backgrounds are such that they have further to go in reaching their potential because of some of the barriers that they face. That is a principle with which some Members of the Committee may not agree, but I put it forward to the Minister as a principle that I thought the Government shared.

The third issue is one of practical implication. Academies are their own admissions authorities. Research in this country has already suggested that, without checks and balances, academies have a greater opportunity

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC169

covertly to select than perhaps we all would wish. Leaving that point aside, however, there must be concern under the Bill that if selective schools become academies it will lead in practice to an extension of selection. Clause 58 will allow selective schools becoming academies to widen the age range of their intake. This could lead to a state education system which allowed selection at primary as well as secondary level. Under the Government's draft admissions code, popular selective academies can expand without agreement from the local authority or the Secretary of State. I should like the Minister to comment on whether that means that a selective academy could not only expand in size but also, as has been commented on, establish a cluster school elsewhere which would be managed by the head teacher and senior management team and thereby extend selection to a larger number of pupils.

That is the reason for my amendment. I should be grateful if the Minister could respond to the points that I have raised. First, do the Government want to see an extension of selection, or are they neutral about it? Secondly, do they believe that academies should serve the whole community and, if so, why are selective schools which become academies being allowed to retain selection? Thirdly, does not the Minister share my concern that that provision, together with the two elements of the Bill which I have identified, could-however inadvertently on the Government's part-lead to an extension of selection? Would the Government be happy if that were the case?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 126A. The previous Government made a good deal of progress in closing the gap between state and independent schools, to the extent that two or three independent schools crossed back into the state sector. This Government have made considerable further progress in that direction. It is clear that the institution of free schools and the freeing-up of obligations on academies generally will reduce the demand for independent education and bring children back into the state sector. The pressures now imposed by the Office for Fair Access will have a similar effect.

There is a question to be asked of the Opposition. Do they share my ambition to see over time some of the independent sector reabsorbed back into the state sector? If so, how far are they prepared to go to achieve that? It does not seem to be going very far to allow a selective independent school to come back into the state sector as a selective state school.

7.30 pm

I do not share my noble friend's views on selection. I rather like the Toby Young form of selection-that is, that every child should learn Latin. That seems to be an academic equivalent of university technical colleges. You set out to be a different kind of school, but it is the parents who choose whether to send their child to that school, not the school that chooses whether to accept the parents. I very much hope that that form of differentiation will prove to be stable and will be a pattern to which schools that are presently selective will find themselves able to adapt once they see that it produces a workable and fine school. We are indulging in a very interesting set of experiments.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC170

In my amendment, what I am interested in is not the bottom end of the independent sector, which has been crossing the divide until now and, I suspect, will continue to do so as financial pressures mount, but whether we can move far enough to allow some of the cream of the independent sector to come back to the state sector. What I have set out here-not with anyone's particular permission but having talked to a lot of people about it-is a way in which we might achieve that, and I do not think that that would be a bad thing for the state sector. One of the problems of the division that we have at the moment, with 7 per cent independent and 93 per cent state is that the 7 per cent is sufficient to allow a lot of institutions and professions to headhunt and recruit principally in that sector. They can get all they want from there. It would be much healthier if we could reduce that percentage and have a number of stellar schools come back into the state sector to change fundamentally the attitude of recruiters, particularly in the professions, to the question of where they get their recruits.

The Labour Party has had several chances radically to undermine the independent sector but has never done it, so why do we not move rather more gently to achieve what should be a common objective between me and the Opposition? Given all the progress that those in the Labour Party made in their years in office, I do not think that it is that big a step.

Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, we discussed back in July how important it is that schools should be able to meet the needs of the most able children, and we talked then about some of the ways in which that could be done.

I shall try to answer some of the questions put to me about my view of the situation. The current position on the number of schools that may select by ability or aptitude strikes me as being one that we have arrived at in a typically English and messy way over many years. Our position is that it should continue as it is. These amendments seek in different ways to use the process of conversion to academy status as a catalyst for either increasing or decreasing the number of selective schools in the state sector, and the Government are opposed to a move in either direction.

We think that academies, with the freedoms and flexibilities that academy status brings, should be well placed to provide stretching and demanding provision for pupils with a particular ability or a general aptitude for learning. Our policy is to ensure that as many schools as possible are able to take up these freedoms, and that includes grammar schools and independent selective schools. However, we have been clear that we do not intend to increase the number of selective schools in the state system. Therefore, we have been clear that when independent schools convert to academy status, we do not think they should be able to bring their selective admission arrangements with them.

My noble friend Lord Lucas's amendment would allow independent schools to become academies but continue to charge parents fees, though not, I appreciate, those who could not afford it. However, the principle that state-funded school education should be available free of charge to all children is one with which most noble Lords would agree.

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC171

We also know, however, that where there are selective schools in the state system they are often highly valued by local parents and are part of the education landscape, and we are equally clear that that state of affairs should continue. That was the position of the previous Government and it is one that we want to continue, so we do not think that those schools should lose their right to select simply because they become academies.

We support the right of state-funded schools that selected by ability prior to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to continue to do so, but it is not our intention to increase the number of selective schools. However, existing selective maintained schools and academies may expand-as they were permitted to do under the previous Government-where there is demand, where funding is in place and where such proposals have been agreed locally.

Rather ingloriously, perhaps, I find myself arguing for the status quo. I assure the Committee, however, that we are taking steps to ensure that as many children as possible have access to a good local school and that all those schools, whether they are academies or maintained schools, provide a stretching education for all their pupils. As my noble friend Lady Garden said in a previous debate on these issues, these steps include promoting free schools to increase good places, allowing good schools to expand and taking the limit off the published admissions number, freeing head teachers to take decisions on how to spend that money and slimming down the national curriculum so that schools can design a curriculum that best meets their pupils' needs.

I know that my noble friend Lord Blackwell believes strongly in the case behind the amendments and that his concern is to try to increase social mobility and achievement for children from the poorest backgrounds so that they have the opportunity to flourish in a way that we would want to see. I am aware of his commitment to social mobility and the sense of moral purpose that he brings to this argument, which is not the preserve of one side in this debate. Saying what I have said about the Government's position of leaving things as they stand and preserving the status quo will disappoint my noble friend. In spite of that, I hope that for the moment he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am not sure that I understand the moral difference between allowing a grammar school to expand and allowing an independent school to join the state sector as a selective school. Both have the effect of increasing the number of selective places in the UK state system. Why is one good and the other bad?

Lord Hill of Oareford: I do not think that it is a point of merit, as it were, and I would not claim that it were. It is a practical point. There are a number of schools in the maintained sector where selection already takes place. We think that it is right that they should

12 Sep 2011 : Column GC172

be able to become academies and that, as has always been the case, they should be able to expand. The point about independent schools coming into the maintained sector and retaining selective arrangements is that it would increase the number of selective schools in the system. For reasons of practicality rather than anything else, the Government have come to the view that we do not want to increase the number of schools where selection takes place.

Lord Blackwell: My Lords, I thank everyone who contributed. As the Minister suggests, I am not entirely happy with his answer. The status quo may be a pragmatic English outcome but it is difficult to defend a situation where in certain parts of the country grammar schools still exist and children from modest-income or low-income families have the opportunity to get some of the best education on offer, but in large parts of the country there are no grammar schools and children from similar backgrounds do not have that opportunity. Despite all the years of effort to ensure that all schools provide the best education for children of high ability, we know that it is very difficult to get that to work. There are many areas where those children are therefore destined not to fulfil their potential because they do not have access to the kind of education that many of our generation had, and which enabled us to move up the social structure. I find that difficult to accept as a pragmatic outcome, although I understand the reasons for it.

The second reason why this disappoints me is that we might be missing just how important it is to the future prosperity of this country that we educate our top-ability children to their full potential. We will be competing in a world where our brain power and skills are among the main factors that will allow us to prosper. To have a large part of our population without access to the best education and the best opportunities to develop is to throw away our chances of national growth and prosperity. This is not a position that will sustain for very long as a messy compromise. I shall reflect on what the Minister has said before we come back to this on Report, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 124 withdrawn.

Amendment 124A not moved.

Amendments 124AA and 124AB

Moved by Lord Hill of Oareford

124AA: Clause 52, page 43, line 36, at end insert "or without"

124AB: Clause 52, page 43, line 41, after "Academies" insert "or a description of alternative provision Academy"

Amendments 124AA and 124AB agreed.

Clause 52, as amended, agreed.

Committee adjourned at 7.42 pm.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page