Specialist Schools (Selection by Aptitude)
Mr Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West, Conservative)
It is always a great pleasure to oppose what Mr. Chaytor has said in the Chamber. However, that puts me in a slightly awkward position, because I know that opposing him is helpful to Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills. In a week in which we have all grown used to reading stories about divisions in the Labour party over international matters, he is introducing a Bill that highlights one of the key divisions in the Labour party on an important aspect of domestic policy.
The Bill is at the core of the Government's education policy. I give the hon. Gentleman credit for being consistent. Only a few months ago, he tabled a Bill that would have had an almost identical effect on reducing the amount of selection possible in specialist schools. As someone who takes an interest in education policy, I was concerned that not only did Ministers sit on their hands throughout the debate, but when it came to a Division, the Government allowed no fewer than six Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who are members of the Government, to vote against Government policy and support the hon. Gentleman's proposals.
In opposing the Bill, I am conscious of providing an opportunity for the Government Whips, who have been experiencing some difficulty of late, to test their new strategies. We will be interested to see whether they choose to exercise on this policy the variable geometry allowed to members of the Cabinet on international affairs, or whether they want to revert to instilling discipline within the Labour party, especially as selection by aptitude is one of the more sensible parts of the Government's education policy.
Given that Ministers have been silent on the issue, I took the precaution a couple of weeks ago of tabling a written question to the Department for Education and Skills asking the Secretary of State about the Government's policy on the Bill. I shall again be perhaps uncharacteristically helpful by acting as a mouthpiece for the Minister for School Standards, who is sitting silently at the Dispatch Box. In his candid response, for which I thank him, he said:
"The Bill seeks to repeal the provisions of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which enable schools with a specialism, not just those designated under the Specialist Schools Programme, to give priority to up to 10 per cent. of pupils".
He went on:
"We do not believe it is necessary nor desirable to remove the flexibility which enables the admission authorities for schools with a specialism, where they wish to do so, to give limited priority to pupils with a particular aptitude for the relevant specialism."—[Hansard, 4 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 964W.]
As the Minister went on to say, that applies in particular to an aptitude for sport and the ability of music and ballet schools—which are close to the heart of my hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan—to select by aptitude. The Bill would destroy that ability and do significant damage.
Given the Minister's splendid response to my written question, I trust that when the House divides he will join us in the Lobby to support what is clearly explicit Government policy and vote against those on the Labour Benches who choose to deviate from that policy, so setting back progress in our schools. The Opposition support specialist schools and accept that there is a role for selection in raising standards—something that Ministers also accept. That is true of both partial and full selection. Northern Ireland has a wholly selective system and GCSE results there are 14 per cent. better than in England. Yet in spite of that, with direct rule in place, the Government are persisting in the policy previously pursued by Mr. Martin McGuinness of trying to destroy that system.
In the past few days I received another written answer confirming that it is not just grammar schools that do well in a selective system. Selective systems as a whole show benefits for educational performance—