Specialist Schools (Selection by Aptitude)
Mr David Chaytor (Bury North, Labour)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the provisions of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 enabling specialist schools to select pupils on the basis of aptitude;
and for connected purposes.
First, this is not a Bill that in any way seeks to criticise the concept or purpose of the secondary specialist school—far from it, as the Government's recent decision to make specialist school designation available to all schools has been widely welcomed. The Bill is solely concerned with a relatively obscure part of the school admission arrangements, which enables certain specialist schools, and other schools that consider themselves to have a specialism, to select up to 10 per cent. of their pupils on the basis of aptitude. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 introduced the concept of testing for aptitude, the 1999 regulations described the means of implementation, and the new school admissions code of practice, published last month, provides further guidance. My Bill proposes to end the power to select by aptitude, on the grounds that it will increasingly be used as a back-door method of selection by ability.
This is a unique Government policy, and the main argument given to justify it by Ministers, officials and advisers is that the policy is rarely used. Can anyone think of a parallel? Would we, for example, defend the policy of the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools by arguing that few schools did anything about it? If selection by aptitude is a good policy, consistent with the Government's other objectives, why are all schools not strongly encouraged to use it? The silence on the issue speaks volumes. The latest available figures indicate that about 6 per cent. of specialist schools choose to select by aptitude. The figures clearly indicate, however, that the majority of schools that select are foundation schools—former grant-maintained schools—or voluntary aided schools, and those schools are their own admission authorities.
In addition, schools that select tend to have far fewer children on free school meals than the national average, and take far fewer children with statements of special needs than the national average. Although it is true that that 6 per cent. represents a comparatively small number of schools at present, when all 3,500 English secondary schools become specialist, if the figure remains at 6 per cent., that will equate to more than 200 schools. That will mean a 150 per cent. increase in the existing number of grammar schools that select explicitly on the grounds of ability.
Consequently, a deep concern exists that selection by aptitude has become, and will continue to develop, as yet another means by which schools whose intakes are already comparatively privileged will seek to reinforce their position in the local hierarchy of schools. Some schools have used, and some are still using, selection by aptitude to increase further their intake of able and well motivated pupils, thus increasing the concentration of less able and less well motivated pupils in neighbouring schools. The twin pressures imposed on head teachers by pupil-related funding and the publication of league tables make the process almost inevitable.
Selection by aptitude will lead to a reinforcement of the local hierarchy, a widening of inequality between schools and the creation of more schools that simply cannot recruit that critical mass of able and motivated children that all schools need in order to progress. That was precisely the issue identified as one of the great problems of the English education system in the recent OECD report on secondary school performance, and it would be perverse to continue with policies that make the problem worse.
Secondly, selection by aptitude is now unnecessary because of the Government's welcome changing policy on specialist schools. The earlier rhetoric in the debate on specialism was couched in the language of specialist schools delivering better results, becoming individual centres of excellence and therefore offering greater consumer choice for parents. It was then pointed out that only schools that were already performing well could become specialist schools, that the £600,000 of additional funding probably played some part in the delivery of better results, that the Government's evidence on results was itself highly selective and disputed by some experts, and that in most parts of the country there was no increase in parental choice, only in parental preference. By definition, selection by aptitude, like all forms of selection, restricts parental choice precisely because it is the school that does the choosing.
The Government have now sensibly developed the policy in a new direction, so that specialist schools are now expected to work in collaborative networks and share their expertise with others. Specialism is seen as a means of school improvement for all schools, not as a means by which the few can gain an advantage over the many. In this framework, it becomes less important for parents to seek out a specialist school to match the alleged aptitude of the child, because not only will all schools have a distinct specialism but they will develop their expertise across the curriculum and benefit from the specialisms of neighbouring schools. As the specialism becomes a means to an end and not an end in itself, the argument for selecting pupils to attend particular schools becomes increasingly irrelevant.
Thirdly, there is the question of what exactly constitutes aptitude, how it can be measured and how it relates to ability. No one has yet has been able to provide a satisfactory definition. Previously, Ministers have equated aptitude with potential, but when they were pressed to clarify what kind of potential, the discussion always reverted to the concept of potential ability. Of course, Government policy is opposed to increasing selection by ability. The confusion between aptitude and ability, and the confusion caused by using the word "potential" as a noun rather than an adjective, are obvious.
There has been some attempt to argue that aptitude relates only to sport and the arts. The idea that some 11-year-olds have an aptitude for sport or the arts that is distinct from their general level of ability, and that they should be given special help to develop it, is superficially attractive. However, the justification for that argument always reverts to the need to identify and promote young talent and future high achievers—that is, young people with ability. Again, aptitude is used as a proxy for ability.
Another attempt to define aptitude is contained in a recent ministerial reply that refers to
"pupils who, for example, show a capacity to be trained or developed".—[Hansard, 4 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 964W.]
The new schools admissions code of conduct defines a pupil with aptitude as
"one who is identified as being able to benefit from teaching in a specific subject".
If the overwhelming majority of pupils entering secondary school do not show a capacity to be trained or developed, or if they are not able to benefit from teaching in a specific subject, we have some serious problems. The real issue is not whether pupils can benefit from teaching, but the extent to which they can be trained and developed. Once again, this brings us back to the question of their ability.
There is also the question of how accurately aptitude can be assessed at the age of 10 or 11. I do not intend to go into the dubious practices that some schools have used to enhance their pupil intake, but that might be a useful subject for a future Adjournment debate. It has been well documented most recently in research by the London school of economics. All I I shall say now is that schools that are their own admissions authorities can operate in ways that are not altogether transparent, and aptitude testing simply provides another means of selection by ability, without even having the justification of the objectivity that most specific tests of ability will provide.
During the past three years, I have asked representatives of England's examining boards, head teachers and Ofsted officials about aptitude tests. The answer is always the same: there are no standardised tests available that satisfactorily assess aptitude without reference to ability. At a recent meeting of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, I put a question to Sir Cyril Taylor, the chair of the Specialist Schools Trust Council and adviser to eight successive Secretaries of State, and the author of the specialist schools policy. In his reply, he said:
"I personally think it is really only of use in areas where you can clearly identify aptitude: music, sport perhaps, maybe maths. Most so-called aptitude tests are also intelligence tests . . . Most tests in subjects would measure both aptitude and intelligence."
That is exactly the point. Can anyone explain how we could test aptitude in mathematics without reference to ability, or test in music or technology? Are we seriously saying that we want a new generation of plumbers who have an aptitude for using a blowtorch but no ability to fix a leak? I want—
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—
Mr Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West, Conservative)
Indeed, and in the borough of Trafford—[Interruption.] I am being urged to add Kent to that list.
We have clear evidence that wholly selective areas outperform the national average by 4 per cent. in terms of the number of children getting A* to C grades in all the core subjects of English, maths and science. Areas that are wholly comprehensive underperform against that average.
We urge the Minister and his colleagues to join us in the Lobby in support of one of the more sensible parts of Government policy. He should accept that selection has a role to play in raising standards. If we have a quibble with Ministers on this subject, it is that they have been far too timid. They could go much further and free schools even more to harness the energy that would come from there being far greater diversity and choice among them. That is the way to raise education standards; the Minister knows it, and the answers that he has given me prove it. He should now act on what he has said and come into the Lobby with us to oppose the Bill.