Designation of Grammar Schools

Clause 96 – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 24th March 1998.

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Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education 9:15 pm, 24th March 1998

I beg to move amendment No. 175, in page 70, line 23, leave out 'had' and insert 'has'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 176, in page 70, line 23, leave out 'at the beginning of the 1997–98 school year'. No. 177, in page 70, line 32, at end insert— '(3A) Regulations may make provision that where a maintained school is not a grammar school,—

  1. (a) the admission authority for a school may submit an application to the Secretary of State to change the admission arrangements of the school so that the school will qualify for designation as a grammar school under this section;
  2. (b) when the Secretary of State receives an application under this subsection he shall arrange for a ballot of parents who would qualify to vote in a ballot under section 97 and if a majority of those parents support the application of the admission authority, the admission authority shall secure that the admission arrangements of the school are revised in accordance with its proposal.'.

No. 178, in page 71, line 10, leave out from 'read,', to first 'as' in line 12.

No. 160, in clause 97, page 71, line 22, at end insert— '(bb) to any grammar school or group of grammar schools of a denominational character.'. No. 179, in page 71, line 27, after 'section', insert, 'provided that the parents of children who are for the time being pupils of the grammar school shall always be so eligible'. No. 165, in page 72, line 40, after 'not', insert 'at public expense'.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The amendments deal with the Government's approach to the remaining grammar schools left in the maintained system—just over 160. I firmly believe that clause 96 and the way in which the Government have handled it are one of the worst aspects of the Bill. The Labour party's attitude to grammar schools goes back a long way. It would be improper of me to repeat the quote that is attributed to Anthony Crosland on grammar schools. His attitude was expressed in the late 1960s. As we saw in Committee, Labour Members' prejudices towards grammar schools have changed not one iota in the intervening 30 years. The Minister's attitude is slightly different, but that of his Back Benchers, as it was manifested in Committee, is not different in any important detail from that expressed all those years ago by the late Anthony Crosland.

We do not need to look at Labour Back Benchers' facial expressions to see contemporary evidence of the strength of that prejudice within the Labour party. The present Secretary of State, when interviewed by the Daily Mail in January 1996, made clear his approach to the question of grammar schools as of that moment. He was quoted as saying: It is 30 years since Crosland embarked on this. I don't think anyone should expect me to complete his work in the first three months of a Labour Government. He made it clear that his instinct was the same as Anthony Crosland's; he simply asked for greater time than three months to deliver the objective that Anthony Crosland had set out. Later in the same interview, he said: We have made a clear pledge. There will be no more selection. I'm going to be as blunt about it as that. In January 1996, the attitude adopted by the present Secretary of State was extremely straightforward: he was opposed to selection and he was opposed to grammar schools as the manifestation of selection. It was a continuation of the policy pursued by the Labour party, both in government and in opposition, for more than 30 years. In January 1996, the position was clear.

My hon. Friends will remember that, little more than a year later, there was a by-election in the Wirral, which was awkward from the Labour party's point of view.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The Whip intervenes—although he should never intervene because he is unable to respond to the reply—to ask who won the Wirral by-election. That is a matter of history, as are the Labour party's pledges during the by-election, which certainly contributed to its result. During the Wirral campaign, it became clear to the Labour party that the attitude expressed by the present Secretary of State in that Daily Mail interview and on numerous other occasions in the preceding months was not saleable on the streets of the Wirral.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

It is, indeed, a pity that the Secretary of State is not here.

During the Wirral by-election campaign, the attitude of the Labour party evolved to the extent that, by 7 February 1997, the Financial Times was not reporting firm opposition to the principle of selection in grammar schools; on the contrary, it was saying that, under a Labour Government, there would be no threat to their continuance, or to their ethos, or to their quality.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

Does my right hon. Friend believe that that is one of the reasons why the Labour party is so keen on regional development agencies? With regional development agencies, there could be a different Labour party policy for each part of the country.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

We are not trying to encourage the Labour party to have different policies in different parts of the country. We are attempting to give effect, in a Bill introduced after the general election, to the Labour party's pre-election policy commitments. During the Wirral by-election, the Labour party was at pains to say that there would be no threat to grammar schools if a Labour Member were elected in the Wirral or, come to that, if a Labour Government were elected. During that by-election, the Labour party started to promote the idea that the future of a grammar school or group of grammar schools should be decided by a ballot of local parents.

In answer to the question, "How do you trigger a ballot under the provisions of Labour's proposal?" a briefing given to The Times in February 1997 said that there could be a ballot only if a sufficient number of parents wanted a change".The Timescontinued: Although Mr. Blunkett declined to give a figure, Labour sources said, 'it will be a very high threshold—i.e. it won't happen'''. Therefore, guidance issued by the Labour party before the general election was not consistent with the policy that the Secretary of State had espoused a year previously, and—more critically—that policy is not consistent with the policy that is embodied in the Bill.

We have before us a rushed series of proposals—so rushed that the Minister of State was unable to tell the Committee the details of the arrangements that will prevail for the conduct of ballots. He could not even answer the most basic question that must be asked about any ballot; he cannot tell us who will be able to vote in the balloting process.

10.15 pm

The Bill vests in the Secretary of State a power to introduce regulations establishing the terms on which a ballot will be held to determine either the future of selective arrangements in a whole local education authority area, or the selective arrangements that will apply to the continued existence of a grammar school in an area where there are both grammar schools and other forms of school.

I shall discuss whole-area ballots first. The Minister's guidance to the Committee says that, if a local education authority currently operates a full, traditional selective system, there will be a ballot for the whole local education authority area, to determine the future of grammar schools in that area.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said, that policy does not deliver on the Government's commitment to allow the parents in an area to determine the continuance or otherwise of grammar school arrangements to meet the educational needs of their individual children. The area that my hon. Friend represents is large, and it is perfectly possible that parents looking to one grammar school might reach different conclusions from parents looking to a different grammar school; yet the Government led those people to believe that the matter would be determined by local parents.

The outline of the voting arrangements says that all my hon. Friend's constituents will be lumped into a single ballot, and that different groups of parents will have no opportunity to reach different conclusions—hence amendment No. 160, which my hon. Friend will seek to move later. That amendment would allow a group of parents who wanted a denomination-based grammar school for their children to hold a separate ballot, regarding a single grammar school or a group of grammar schools, to determine whether that school or those schools should have continued access to a selective system.

Our first argument against the grammar school provisions is that the arrangements for whole-area ballots do not deliver on the Government's pledge to allow parents of children at a school to determine whether that school continues to be selective.

The Government get into worse and worse trouble on the arrangements for ballots to determine the future of individual schools. According to my reading of the material that is currently available to us, the first and most obvious inequity is that the Government anticipate that parents of children at feeder schools will have a right to vote to determine the future of an existing grammar school whose future is not the subject of a whole-area ballot, but that parents whose children currently attend the school will have no vote to determine the future of the school in which their own children are being educated.

I look forward to hearing the argument that the Minister will use when confronted with parents who may have a child aged 11 in a school with 11-to-18 provision, and who have been told by this Government that the future of the school will be determined by a ballot of parents—not of the parents of that school, but of the parents of five-year-olds in feeder schools. The parents of that 11-year-old, who still has another seven years' education at the school, will not have the right to determine the future of the school in which their child is being educated.

What possible principle provides that the parents of a child who may never come anywhere near that school, because those parents may move away, have the right to vote in the ballot, but the parents of a child already in that school have no such right? That is nonsense.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does that principle means that an old boy of the school—

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Or old girl. However, I am thinking of an old boy from the Judd school in Kent, who might well live in my constituency of Sevenoaks, who has a son aged two or three. That old boy may be a governor of the school and have already decided that he would like his son to follow him and attend that school. He will not be able to vote in the ballot.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

It is worse than that. That old boy could have a child in the school and a younger child who is not yet in a feeder school, whom the father wants to attend his old school—which that child's sibling attends—yet he will have no right to vote in the ballot to determine that school's future. That is absurd—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is defending the Minister's proposal. I note that no other Labour Member has leapt up to do so. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell us the argument that he would use in the sort of case referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). Would the hon. Gentleman like to offer the Minister an answer to my hon. Friend's dilemma? I suspect that the Minister would be pleased to get one.

The answer is not obvious to me. What will happen when there is an old boy of the school, with a child already at the school and a child not yet in a primary feeder school? There are three specific links with the school, but no right to vote in the ballot to determine that school's future. The hon. Member for Workington is staying firmly rooted in his seat.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

We would dearly love the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) to spring to his feet. However, his credentials on this matter are clear. Only a few weeks ago he described grammar schools as infernal institutions. We know the bigotry that informs his position.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman's use of language is just the right side of what is acceptable in the House of Commons, whereas the language used by the late Anthony Crosland was wildly offside.

The second example is of a grammar school with a number of different feeder schools. In some parts of the area, the primary provision covers the age range five to 11. In other parts, there is a division between infant and junior provision, with children changing primary schools at the age of seven or eight. Is the Minister seriously saying that the parents of a six-year-old in the separate infants school will not have a vote, but the parents of a six-year-old in the combined primary school will? Is that the principle that the Government want to defend? I look forward to hearing the Minister explain why the parents of one group of six-year-olds in a regular, established stream would have a vote, while the parents of another group of six-year-olds coming into the grammar school through a different feeder stream would not have a vote.

We then come to perhaps the most absurd proposition of all. I am indebted for this example to the head teachers of two schools in Reading, the Kendrick school for girls and the Reading school for boys. Those are two selective grammar schools, one single-sex male and the other single-sex female. There are mixed feeder schools going into those schools. Is the future of Reading boys school to be decided not by parents of children in the school, but by parents who have daughters in feeder schools of Reading school for boys? The decision would be made by parents of children in the feeder schools who have no prospect of ever going to Reading boys' school, because that school makes a conscious policy decision to offer single-sex provision for boys.

The parents who have a vote in the election are parents of children in the feeder schools, but not the parents of the children in the school itself. The vote is accorded not to the parents of the children in the school, but to parents of girls in feeder schools who have no prospect of going to the school for boys. I look forward to hearing that principle explained by the Minister as well.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

As confused as I am by the logic of the argument so far, I fail to understand whether there is any equity in it. However strange it may be that the feeder school parents can make a choice in the matter, will my right hon. Friend explain to me whether they will at least have the freedom to decide that the school to which their children will go from the feeder school can become a grammar school—or can they only stop it being a grammar school?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend clearly has long vision and the opportunity to look over my shoulder to see the next point that I was going to make. The Government sought to encourage the view that grammar schools were safe with them, and that there would be no threat to grammar schools' continuance, ethos or quality. One might almost say that the Government were elected on the undertaking that the grammar schools were safe in their hands.

The truth, as my hon. Friend rightly notes, is that a one-way ratchet is envisaged in the Bill—one vote once. If the vote goes against selection in a particular school, decades or perhaps centuries of high-quality education can be swept away on the basis of a single vote—[Interruption]—but the opportunity to establish a new grammar school on the basis of parental support is denied throughout the Bill.

Under the Bill as drafted, there is no prospect of any group of parents being able to commission a ballot in order to establish that the parents, teachers and local community in a particular area believe that the grammar school model offers the best future for their children. That is one of the issues to which I shall return.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Did my right hon. Friend hear someone shout from the Government Benches, "What about grant-maintained schools?"? I remind my right hon. Friend that the Secretary of State retains the final decision on grant-maintained schools. When Amherst school last summer decided to go for grant-maintained status by an overwhelming majority, the Secretary of State, in the person of the Minister of State, overruled the school. Five, six or seven hundred years of history can be wiped out by sudden death on a single ballot, and that is the end of the matter.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I thought that my hon. Friend was about to make a different point—which is that, under the Bill, a grant-maintained school that was established on the basis of parental support in a ballot can be abolished without so much as a by your leave. There is certainly no question of seeking parents' support in a ballot to reverse that status.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the outrageous state of affairs described by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) is compounded by the fact that destruction of a grammar school—a beacon of excellence in our system—can occur in a ballot with absolutely no minimum voter turnout requirement? Is that not an indication of how determined the Government are to skew ballots in one direction rather than another?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education 10:30 pm, 24th March 1998

I think that my hon. Friend is right, but I have no means of knowing whether he is—and neither does the Whip, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), who seems very certain about these matters. Moreover, unless the Minister has cleared the draft regulations with the Whip, the Minister will know no better than I do what will be in the regulations when they are tabled.

It is yet another manifestation of the absurdity of our position today: we are being asked to debate and decide a system dealing with the future of 163 grammar schools in England on the basis that the Secretary of State will produce the rules after the House has debated the principles and the Bill is done and dusted. Therefore, the answer to my hon Friend's question is that, although I think he is right, no one in the House really knows the answer.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Did Ministers give any hints in Committee about how petitions for ballots would work? Like the heads and chairmen of governors of the two grammar schools in my constituency, did my right hon. Friend get the impression that, whereas a ballot might mean the end of the argument—one way or the other—for five years, a parent or group of parents could petition at any time and without any limit? Even if a ballot were held in response to a petition, parents could petition again the day after the ballot, creating instability for years to come.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Once again, I must say that I do not know for certain the answer to the question, because I have not seen the regulations. However, the indications that we have had from the Government are exactly as my hon. Friend suggests. Ministers seem to accept that, if a school wins a ballot to retain its grammar school status, the issue should be closed for five years. However, I do not think that five years is long enough. In Committee, we moved an amendment that made the point that an 11-to-18 grammar school will educate children for seven years. Therefore, although an unsuccessful ballot may be held in the first year of a child's education in that school, the school's future may again be open to question before the end of that child's education. Therefore, the five-year bar on re-balloting is not long enough.

My hon. Friend is right to say that, if an unsuccessful attempt is made to petition for a ballot, there will be no bar—none has yet been suggested by Ministers—on the right of any individual to launch a new petition and attempt to change a school's status. He is also right to say that, although a school will have a period of grace after its future has been decided in a ballot, a school that does not hold a ballot will be continuously subject to the type of threat that he described.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Will my right hon. Friend concede that, on all those matters, the Bill seems directly to contradict the Labour party's policies on grant-maintained schools? When the issues of balloting grant-maintained schools were debated during and after passage of the Education Reform Act 1988, it was never suggested that the type of arrangements proposed in this Bill should be imposed on grant-maintained schools. Now, such arrangements are being foisted on grammar schools. Does it not show enormous hypocrisy in the Labour party?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I agree entirely. The Government have told grant-maintained schools that the Secretary of State will sign away their grant-maintained status at a stroke of the pen. I emphasise that a grant-maintained school is grant-maintained only because a majority of parents voted for that status in a ballot. The Secretary of State is taking the power in the Bill to reverse the effect of that ballot, without any suggestion that a ballot should be necessary to support his decision.

I suppose that it is at least a small mercy that a requirement for a ballot is being written into the Bill for grammar schools—although, as I sought to argue, on the basis of the information available to the House, the requirements that have in fact been written into the Bill are wholly unsatisfactory, and some of their effects verge on the absurd.

Given the range of inadequacies in the Bill and in the undertakings that the Government have given about the operation of ballots under it, had we tabled amendments to deal with them all and then encouraged the House to vote on them, we would have been here all night. Therefore, I tabled amendments to deal with the two most important failings of the balloting arrangements as they affect individual schools.

The first of those failings is the proposition that parents of children at an existing grammar school should have no vote to determine the future of that school. That is patently absurd. Amendment No. 179 provides that the parents of children at an existing grammar school should have a vote in a ballot to determine that school's future.

The second most important failing is dealt with by amendment No. 177. Instead of the grammar school principle being a closed list, schools should have the opportunity to seek the support of groups of parents to establish themselves as new grammar schools. That amendment is the most difficult for the Government to argue against.

The Government must believe that grammar schools ought to have a continued place in the school system. It may be unfashionable and awkward for the Minister's Back-Bench supporters that that is the Government's position, but it is what the Bill outlines. If the Government really believe that grammar schools are wrong, they now have the opportunity to abolish them. Presumably they do not believe that grammar schools are damaging to the public interest, because they are passing up the opportunity to do anything about them.

The Government have to explain why a school that is delivering a high-quality service and which they are content should continue to do so, in conjunction with the schools around it, should not be used as a model by parents in other parts of the country to establish similar successful schools to serve their needs and those of their community. The effect of the Bill is to establish a closed paddock: "If you're in there, that's fine. If not, too bad." The ladder is being pulled up. This type of school might work well for some, but the experience and proven track record of a grammar school in one area, serving the needs of certain groups of people, can never be used to offer the same opportunities elsewhere.

The Government claim that they are inclusive and that they promote opportunity and excellence in education. For such a Government to argue that grammar schools should be available to some but not extended to others who may want them and who could benefit from them is absurd.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Does my right hon. Friend think it ironic that the Minister without Portfolio can use all his venom to accuse the BBC of dumbing down, when he is a member of a Government who want to dumb down centres of excellence in this country?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I agree. If there is a theme that has run through the Government's schools policy ever since their election, it is their persistent vendetta against established centres of excellence.

I do not doubt the desire of the Minister of State to establish and promote high quality where he can do so, and when we have discussed other parts of the Bill, I have welcomed and encouraged his proposals for education action zones in so far as they provide opportunities to develop new ideas for the provision of schools. The problem that the Minister and his party have in spades, however, is that, whenever an existing, proven track record of success has been achieved under the assisted places scheme, by grammar schools or by grant-maintained schools, the Government's approach has been to sweep those schools away.

The Minister likes to say how important it is to promote high quality where it does not currently exist. No one disagrees with him about that, but he would be a great deal more persuasive if he did not consistently argue against the continued existence of institutions with a proven track record of success.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

At the end of the last debate, the Minister said that we needed to take the discussion forward, and accused my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) of tabling amendments that looked back. I suggest that the proposals in the Bill look back.

I believe that the issue in education should no longer be about structure—that it should now be about performance. I think that many schools that look forward, seek a new agenda and are concerned about performance, will be thrust back into an old argument from which neither they nor pupils will benefit. That is particularly true in my constituency. Inevitably, many of us will wish to speak about constituency cases.

I have mentioned this case to the Minister before, and I pay tribute to his understanding. I believe that he is genuinely anxious to improve the quality of education. As he will know, my constituency—which contains the only three selective schools in North Yorkshire—has what might almost be described as a poisonous history. That certainly applies to the Ripon side. We are trying to turn our backs on the old argument, and look forward to creating different but equal centres of excellence in the spirit of diversity.

Ripon contains a long-standing grammar school of which I was head boy. In fact, I think I still hold the hundred yards record—largely because the boys now run a hundred metres. Across the road is Ripon city school, a secondary modern where my father taught. For many years there was open or covert warfare between the two schools. There is now a new headmaster at the city school, who has decided that he wants to turn his back on that old argument. He is seeking technology status for the school: he wants a centre of excellence that is different. He wants to focus on technological subjects.

When I sent him a copy of the Minister's letter outlining his proposals, Paul Lowery, the headmaster of the school—a city school; the school that might be deemed to have the greatest stake in change in Ripon—concluded his own letter by saying: we remain committed to the view that it would be divisive and inappropriate in Ripon"— reorganisation, that is— and would certainly not contribute to the important issue of raising standards! I must give a full report of the letter. The headmaster also said that he felt that secondary modern schools had become the overlooked element of the education system. I have reported the letter faithfully.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

Is he in favour of grammar schools?

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

The headmaster has said that he does not believe in reorganisation in Ripon. Ripon contains a grammar school and a secondary modern, and the nearest comprehensive is in Boroughbridge. I have therefore replied accurately to the hon. Gentleman.

The situation in Skipton is somewhat different. There are twin schools: a high school for girls and Ermysted's grammar school for boys. They are radically different. Ermysted's is aided; it owns its property; it has a foundation.

I have explained to the Minister the importance of the headmaster in Ripon seeking technology status in turning the school towards a new agenda, with a very clear unique selling point, to use the modern jargon. If the threat of reorganisation is to hang over that school, it can wave goodbye to the idea of technology status. Nobody would give a particular status to a school where the constitution is likely to change.

How far does a ballot go in Skipton? Does it extend to the feeder schools to both secondary schools? Does it extend right up the dale to the people who are affected? Where are the limits? That is important. There is a single grammar school in Ripon. One could imagine the Minister saying that the ballot applied to its feeder schools, of which there are 32 or 33. Some send one child a year—or perhaps one child every other year—to the grammar school.

10.45 pm

There are 16 or 17 feeder schools for Skipton high school, many of which are out of the area. People flee from the Keighley area, in Bradford metropolitan borough council, to North Yorkshire for their education—about which nobody can really complain. Is it conceivable that Ripon grammar school would go comprehensive, to leave the two schools in Skipton? Is it conceivable that the two schools in Skipton would go comprehensive, to leave Ripon grammar the sole selective school in North Yorkshire? Does the Minister accept that, in practice, it is all or nothing for those schools—and accept equally the schools' different constitutions, which create a problem for him?

Who ballots? I accept that the Minister has not made up his mind. I accept that his letter set out a series of hypotheses. My speech is to encourage him to look hard at those hypotheses. Ripon grammar has 32 or 33 feeder schools. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood said, under the Bill, the parent of a child in the first form of a primary school would have a vote, but the parent of a child in the first form of the grammar school, who expected their child to attend that school for six more years, would not have a vote. There is a question of natural justice.

We must ask a further question: if the vote is extended to the grammar school, would it be extended to the other secondary schools in the area? I realise that that is a problem with which the Minister must grapple. I suspect that he wishes that it would go away. That is one element I share with him. The agenda must look forward. The proposals look backwards. We would both like to eliminate the backward-looking agenda.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Coming from the city of Lancaster, I have some understanding of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. In arguing for the status quo, he is surely undermining the case of his right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) that parents should be able positively to ballot in favour of grammar schools.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

If it is a postulate of the Government that people should be able to change a school from a grammar school to a comprehensive school, and if the Government believe that we should have a diversity of education, it must be intellectually consistent to argue that parents should also be able to ballot to return to grammar school status. I do not think that that would happen often. I said in my very first sentence that we should look towards performance and not form in education.

I do not think that my party's campaign for a grammar school in every town made a great deal of sense. I did not think that the Labour party's views on grammar schools, which kept changing with every blow of the wind, made a great deal of sense; nobody knew where it stood. Sensible people on both sides of the argument wanted to bring it to an end. We wanted to look towards performance and delivery.

In the modern world, public services are increasingly asked to demonstrate that they can justify the funding spent on them. That is right; I have no quarrel with that.

A ballot must be requested by 20 per cent. of parents—but over how long? Will the list be open for a month or a year? We know what will happen; people will persuade others to sign for a ballot on the grounds that they are not voting to change the school, but merely voting for a debate. It is a bit like Members of Parliament being asked to sign early-day motions—nothing will happen; it is just an expression of opinion. Before we know where we are, ballots will be triggered.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My right hon. Friend has put his finger on an important point. Does he agree that, if the period in which signatures can be collected is not limited, we will be in danger of creating a charter for militant political activists—for what Harold Wilson described, in a different context, as a small and tightly knit group of politically motivated men?

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

We are in danger of creating an almost permanent situation similar to that on the board of Newcastle United over the past few days. Such uncertainty would be to everyone's disadvantage. How long will the petition be valid? If there is no time scale, the five-year gap between ballots does not mean much, because people can collect signatures in the meantime.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong for it to be possible for a petition to roll over to a subsequent year, given that the parents who had signed it may not be part of the eventual electorate?

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

I absolutely agree. Someone who had signed a petition in the initial stages might no longer be eligible to vote by the time of the ballot.

How will campaigns be funded? Rightly, local education authorities are to have no say. Governors are also apparently to have no say. However, I am worried that organisations such as the National Union of Teachers will throw hundreds of thousands of pounds at the campaign to comprehensivise British education.

I should like the Government to issue regulations. They should at least have a view on the funding of campaigns. The Freedom Association, or some similar organisation, will come in on the other side. Before we know where we are, megabucks will be thrown at the campaign. In the ideological battle, people will forget that kids' future is at stake. Opinion in small towns will be polarised, and a divisive bitterness will re-emerge in communities.

If a ballot results in a vote for reorganisation, who will pay for it? The reorganised schools would not use the same buildings in Ripon or Skipton. Where would funding come from for the necessary major physical reorganisation?

I accept that the Minister probably wishes that he did not have to bring the proposals forward. They are the tail end of the old policy. The Government would—rightly—prefer to address a more forward-looking agenda. In many respects they have done so. I support that. Arguments about structures are out of date. We have tried to move the agenda to what happens in schools. How do we improve performance? How do we judge performance? How do we ensure value for money? How do we know that people are getting what they are paying for in education? How are their natural aspirations being achieved?

In the many small towns that still have grammar schools, I foresee a sustained period of bitterness and polarisation.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

I do not assume that. The hon. Gentleman should listen to what I am saying.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. More importantly, Members should not intervene from a sedentary position, and Members who are on their feet should not respond to them.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

I regret that my natural courtesy overcame protocol.

We need to move the agenda forward. Grammar schools still exist. If they were continuing to fire the old salvos across the road at the secondary moderns, I should not leap to their defence. I do not leap to their defence on ideological grounds. Frankly, if anyone could not run an effective education system in the socio-economic conditions of north Yorkshire, my advice would be, "Give up." That is true of Kent and Sussex too, and of large parts of Essex.

I do not believe that comprehensive education would be a catastrophe in North Yorkshire. Heavens above, we have good enough conditions there for it to work. I am asking, "Is it worth the candle?" Do we really want to go back to that argument, or should we look forward to a different agenda in which, most importantly, the secondary modern schools will be able to find a new role in the world?

It is a great mistake to assume that the debate is about grammar schools alone. It is also about the other schools, and about giving secondary moderns a chance to find a new vocation—if I may use a Gallic word that I hope my hon. Friends will not misinterpret—so that they can carve a valid, different, high-quality place for themselves in the education world. If we can do that, we can put the old arguments behind us.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about the debate being not only about grammar schools but about the other schools too, but if the system that he describes is so good, would it not be a mark of confidence in that system to hold a ballot? Would not the system be validated by a ballot?

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

That may be so, but we know precious little about the details of the ballots or about who would be able to vote. The evidence is circumstantial; we know little about the time scale, and little about the funding. We need precision to be able to come to the judgment that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that Labour Members have been the masters of the art of looking to focus groups? If the Government wanted to go and find focus groups to register approval or disapproval of the grammar school system, they would have no difficulty in finding them in my constituency in south Buckinghamshire, and I know what the answer would be.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend is confident about the outcome of a ballot. I do not make a judgment about that, because my argument is not about whether grammar schools are a "good thing" or a "bad thing". I am simply arguing that the measures before the House would lead to a period of uncertainty, and certainly to a period of division and argument. Above all, they would force the schools concerned to turn their backs on the progress that they are now making towards more extensive co-operation and the creation of a separate identity that works, and that delivers diversity of education, based on excellence in each case.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

My right hon. Friend may be interested to know that some of the children who live in my constituency go to a school in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), which, far from being a grammar school, managed through a parental ballot to become grant-maintained, and this year is aiming to send at least two of its children to Oxford or Cambridge.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

I look forward to the time when the city school in Ripon has a graduates club, and—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is now far away from the amendments, and I should be grateful if he would return to them.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

The point that I am trying to make, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that one should not get locked into a particular mindset about what a grammar school can do and what a comprehensive or a secondary modern school can do. If people set their minds on developing those schools instead, they can achieve remarkable things—but they have to begin by putting the old arguments aside. In Ripon and Skipton, we are doing that.

The Bill would drag back those old arguments remorselessly out of the past, and that is wrong. I believe that we need an agenda that looks towards performance and delivery. I believe that the Minister, whom I respect considerably, wishes to do that too. I wish to help him, so I hope that, when he finalises the provisions in the Bill, he will bear those points in mind and look resolutely forward towards how we are to deliver education in the future—in diversity, but with excellence—rather than back towards old arguments that were destructive in the past, and will simply prolong that destruction into the future.

11 pm

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I wish to address amendment No. 165, standing in my name, dealing with the gagging clause that the Government have seen fit to insert in the Bill, which prevents a grammar school or its governing body from campaigning or proselytising during the period of a ballot. It is odd that we will have a vote which may not be preceded by a debate among those most concerned in the outcome. Not only do we not know the rules that will govern the ballot, but the most interested parties—the ones whose voices need to be heard locally—will not be allowed to campaign during the ballot.

In my constituency, there are five grammar schools, and they will not be able to state the case for their own continuation. The Conservative county council—which wishes to continue with grammar schools—will likewise not be allowed to put its case. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, there is nothing to stop any organisation from arguing general principles nationally, but there will not be that opportunity locally—because, under the Bill, there may not be a proper debate.

When this matter was raised in Committee, the Minister's response was that the Government did not want public money used to promote large-scale campaigns during a ballot. That is perfectly fair. All my amendment does is to put that in the Bill. At the moment, the Bill says that bodies concerned "shall not" publish any material, give any financial aid or otherwise campaign. I am simply proposing to add three little words to "shall not"—"at public expense". That leaves heads, governing bodies, parent-teacher associations and anybody who has an interest in the outcome of the ballot free to make the arguments known.

The parents, teachers, heads and governing bodies of Kent would have been offended by the mirth that has been exhibited by Labour Members this evening in discussing something of major importance to them and to the future of their children.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe).

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

I am flattered that my right hon. Friend has prioritised me. If I understand her correctly, she is suggesting that if, for example, a school's governing body wanted to have some influence on the debate, it should resign en bloc from its position as the governing body. It would then be entirely free to campaign. This seems to be nonsense. I have no doubt that people listening to the arguments that the body puts forward would rather know that it is associated with the school than finding that it is, in some curious way, forced to conceal it.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

That is not what I am suggesting, but it is the only possible reaction to the situation that the Government have created in the Bill. People will look for ways around the measure. My amendment is straightforward, and I am amazed that the Minister is not embracing it. Apparently it deals with his objection, which is the use of public money.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in Committee, we referred to the amount of publicity that trade unions could produce in such a ballot? The Minister said that they were external bodies, and nothing to do with him. Experience of grant-maintained schools, however, has taught us that they would have considerable influence, given their resources. The bodies to which my right hon. Friend is referring would have no power against a body such as a trade union unless the Bill contained the powers as she is defining them.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

My hon. Friend is right, and she does well to remind the House of that exchange in Committee, and the deductions that can be made from it.

I tabled the amendment at the direct request of the head of one of my grammar schools, with the support of other heads of grammar schools. They were severely concerned that there would be a vote but that there would be no input in the debate from the grammar schools.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

Is my right hon. Friend aware that parents as well as heads and governing bodies want to take part in the ballots? That is shown by the fact that, next year, both the grammar schools in my constituency—Highworth school for girls and the Norton Knatchbull school for boys—will have to impose a further entry condition because of their popularity among a wider and wider range of parents in and around Ashford.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Indeed. I heard sedentary comments—to which, of course, I should not respond—asking whether I was afraid of the outcome of the ballot. I refer hon. Members to what happened when a BBC crew conducted a vox pop in the streets of Maidstone on the continuation of grammar schools—the response was 100 per cent. in favour. Interestingly, the crew did not approach people who looked as if they had children who were currently at the grammar schools; it approached those with tiny children—people who certainly did not look as though they had had a grammar school education. Nevertheless, 100 per cent. wanted to keep the grammar schools.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Last, and quite clearly least.

On that point, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that, by definition, some of the people who were interviewed would have voted for the Labour party at the general election? Likewise, some of the people who will be disfranchised at those schools will be members of the Labour party. Will she comment on the absence of support for Labour's proposal from Labour Members who represent Kent?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

That is a telling point. I must tell my hon. Friend that I chose my two other hon. Friends before him purely on a geographical basis—confronted with an embarrassment of riches, I had to find some way in which to select, so I chose on a distance criterion. He is, of course, right—both Labour and Liberal supporters wanted to maintain the grammar schools.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

If the schools are as popular across the political spectrum as the right hon. Lady says, what on earth is she worried about?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

If the hon. Gentleman had been paying attention in class, he would have heard me say that I was not worried about the outcome in Kent. That does not mean that I want a silly, unfair system in which there is no reasonable debate before the ballot, and in which major national bodies—trade unions and others—can wage a campaign in Kent, whereas the grammar schools will be gagged. The clause is a gagging measure.

The Labour Government have let down the people of Kent. During the general election, I was repeatedly told by people who claimed to be Labour supporters, and whom I had no reason to disbelieve, "It's all right. They won't do anything to the grammar schools when they get in—the grammar schools are safe with them." I reckon that many parents in Kent now bitterly rue the way they voted in the election.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I hope that she appreciates the fact that I am helpfully intervening in strict geographical order.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made a telling point, on which I should be interested to hear him expand. If he believes that comprehensive schools are so popular, I presume that he will support amendment No. 177, which would give parents of children in those schools the chance to vote on whether the comprehensive system should be maintained.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Indeed, my hon. Friend puts an unarguable proposition to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

Will the right hon. Lady explain how she can tell whether someone has been to a grammar school?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I could not tell, but the BBC crew reckoned they could, so the hon. Gentleman had better put the question to them.

The BBC crew made a point of approaching a range of people of different ages—people who looked as though they might have children at secondary school or at primary school, and people who looked as though they came from a range of professions and occupations—and 100 per cent., from all political persuasions, wanted to keep grammar schools.

That view will be reflected in future votes in Kent. Where are the Kent Labour Members? What are they saying on behalf of the parents who want to keep grammar schools in Kent? We have heard from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, and the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) often shouts out interventions, but their constituencies are a long way from Kent. Where are the Labour Members from Kent?

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

Kent has more grammar schools than any other county, and a proud record of fighting to defend their right to remain as grammar schools. That battle, which had to be fought not only against Labour but, sadly, against the Conservative Government, was fought successfully.

We strongly believe that we have nothing to fear from a ballot. In many respects, the nature of the ballot that is imposed on us does not matter much. It is perfectly clear that the Labour Government have absolutely no idea what sort of ballot they ought to run. They are full of internal contradictions and paradoxes, and they will not find it possible to run a credible ballot on the lines that have so far been suggested. Kent is ready to go along with whatever ballot they decide on.

In any debate about selective education, it is never suggested that the schools that have selection are inferior; the suggestion is always that they somehow have an unfair advantage over other schools, the removal of which is the purpose of all the activity. In a country that is desperate to raise its educational standards, with a Government who have declared that their first, second and third priorities are education, education and education, there is something strange about persistently assaulting a form of education about whose standards there is no complaint.

We must find ways of raising standards in other schools to equal those in grammar schools. By becoming grant-maintained, some schools in Kent have broken free of any suggestion that they are less successful than the grammar schools, and have achieved standards of equal quality. It is a tragedy that, when the grant-maintained system was working so well, it was instantly subjected to attack.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Does my hon. Friend agree that Cornwallis school—one of the first to go grant-maintained in my constituency and one that also serves people from his constituency—now has a high rate of university entrance and is looking forward to its first Oxbridge entrants?

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

I entirely agree; that was the point that I made earlier. That was the school that I had in mind, but there are others.

Obviously, what is frustrating about this debate is that, although the Labour Government appear to be concentrating on a backward-looking assault on a proven system of education—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is a debate not about the relative merits of schools or educational systems, but about a certain group of amendments, and he is very wide of the mark. Will he please return to the amendments that are before the House?

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 11:15 pm, 24th March 1998

Basically, I am speaking in support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), because I believe, as she does, that there is something inherently absurd in debarring the people who know most about the system from taking any active part in informing the public of the merits of system in which they operate. As I said in my intervention on my right hon. Friend, the proposition that, to take part in the public debate, governing bodies have to resign from being governing bodies and conceal from the public their close connections with the schools that they are attempting to promote is nonsense. It should be written out of the Bill.

The amendment is entirely apropos the argument and it should be supported. I hope to hear that the Minister accepts that argument.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I am pleased to support the amendments on grammar schools that stand in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. As hon. Members who served with me in Committee are well aware, it is with great pride and pleasure that I not only defend the excellent grammar and secondary modern schools in my constituency, but go a little further than one or two of my right hon. and hon. Friends and recommend that the grammar school system be available to parents throughout the country. That is why I wish to speak in particular to amendment No. 177, which would give parents in areas that do not have the benefit of grammar schools the facility to enjoy those benefits if they wish.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) mentioned the changes in the position of the Labour party, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). One unfortunate aspect is that we seem to be in between the position held by very old Labour, when Sidney Webb and R. H. Tawney supported grammar schools because they believed that they gave opportunities for advancement to people from ordinary backgrounds—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can have heard what I told the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). He should now speak directly to the amendments.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I was trying to point out, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that education system must be available to parents whether they are in areas that have grammar schools or not. In fact, there has always been a wide spread of opinion on both sides of the House and support in the Labour movement and on the Conservative Benches for that proposition.

I shall certainly try to refer specifically to the amendments as you request, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is essential for parents who do not have the option of a selective education system to be able to look to areas such as mine in the borough of Trafford and those represented by my right hon. and hon. Friends in Kent and Buckinghamshire that have the benefit of that system.

It is utterly unacceptable for the Government to include provisions in the Bill, which they claim are there to give choice and rights to ordinary people and local parents to decide, when they are not prepared to be even-handed. They are not prepared to allow a ballot to institute new grammar schools where parents wish. They are prepared only to have the one-way ratchet which, they hope, will lead to the end of the grammar schools. It must not be a one-way door. If there is to be fairness, choice, an element of local democracy and decision making and a balloting procedure, it is fundamental that the system operates in both directions.

I return to the point that I made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) believes that, if we are confident of the popularity of the grammar schools in our constituencies, we should be happy with the balloting arrangements. He cannot argue that we should be comfortable with the balloting arrangement, however structured, when Labour Members are not prepared to accept the same proposition for the system of education that they seem to prefer. [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. General conversation appears to be breaking out. I should be grateful if hon. Members would listen to the hon. Gentleman who is speaking.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I look forward to some meaningful and intelligent interventions from Labour Members, if they can refrain from the juvenile gestures that they are making. They must explain why they are not prepared to allow parents across the country the choice of looking at the success of the grammar school selective education system, and deciding that it patently works and should be replicated in their areas. The results of the system in the borough of Trafford, which has the best A-level results in the country, or in Buckinghamshire, which has the best GCSE results in the country, show the quality of selective education. Parents should be free to consider that and to decide that they want that education to be available for their children, and not just in those few areas fortunate enough to preserve grammar schools.

If the Government accepted the amendment, it would have the important effect of demonstrating the good faith of the pledge that they made before the Wirral, South by-election and of subsequent occasional comments on the subject. It would remove the thread of hostility to grammar schools that runs through not only the Bill but nearly everything that Labour Members say on the matter. The amendment would allow access to the excellent academic results that selective education can give.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

Why would parents vote for a selective system in which four out of five would not qualify because of the process of selection, which classifies four out of five children as failures, and which makes its education, however excellent, accessible to only a small minority?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing on my next point and, in a sense, underlining it.

Different selective systems involve different percentages. That is not a particularly relevant concern. If the hon. Gentleman believes that parents will not vote for the selective system because they do not believe that all children will go to grammar schools, he must explain why it is not reasonable to allow other parents the same balloting procedure. The hon. Gentleman is confident that they would not wish to take that option up, but if he is so confident, why will Labour not allow parents that choice? He says that parents will not accept it, but I think that they may in certain circumstances.

The reason for that is clear from a selective system that works and has developed over the years as it should have. I speak from strong personal experience, although I admit with some shame that I was only deputy head boy of Altrincham grammar school. With a system that works to the advantage of all local children, not only through excellent grammar schools but through excellent secondary moderns across my constituency, we can see the result of a system that has been developed as it should have been.

I have accepted throughout this debate and in Committee that flaws in the implementation of the system arose from the Education Act 1944. Those parts of the Act, those pillars of the tertiary system, that were not properly resourced and put in place should be encouraged and built up. It should be a case not of using a skewed balloting arrangement to level down and to remove quality and excellence where it exists but of allowing all the schools to rise to the same standards.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

In Kent, 50 or 60 per cent. of children in many secondary schools have special needs. How will schools right across the board rise to the level of the grammar schools, which cream off the top 30 per cent?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

The hon. Gentleman makes a rather tendentious point. I do not argue that all schools will achieve the same A-level results or the same type of highly academic education, or that the output—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am sorry to have to stop the hon. Gentleman again, but will he now return from general debate to the amendment?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was trying to deal directly with the point put to me by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). I should have been delighted to do that, but I accept your strictures and will move on. [Interruption.] In an English school, as well.

The critical point is that selection by ability is not only about creating grammar schools. It is about providing the best form of education for each type of child, each type of educational ability—dare I say it, each aptitude. Perhaps I should use those words interchangeably.

The quality of the results from secondary modern schools in my constituency, such as Ashton on Mersey school—which has received two outstanding awards from Ofsted and two charter mark awards, has now been made a sports college and is achieving better academic results than most comprehensive schools—demonstrates the value of a good selective system. I have the greatest pleasure, therefore, in supporting the amendment to promote the choice of parents in areas where there are no grammar schools. I also support the other amendments in this group.

Some critical effects must be understood in looking at the balloting arrangement. The proposal for LEA-wide ballots runs through the structure of the outline procedure on balloting and through the provisions in the Bill, and certainly impacts on my local schools. The justification for such ballots is supposedly that the future of one school is intimately bound up with the future of other schools. That has a critical relationship with the importance of being able to create new grammar schools in particular areas and particular circumstances.

There may already be an imbalance, especially in areas that do not already have fully selective education systems, but have some grammar schools. There may be an imbalance if there is just one grammar school, or an imbalance in single-sex provision by grammar schools. To take the example of Altrincham, there may be different denominational grammar schools. In those instances, it is essential that there is a procedure whereby education provision can be evened out and a new grammar school put in place to ensure proper and fair provision between sexes and denominations, or to ensure that there are sufficient places.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford made a point about the percentages of children in different schools. The decision may be taken, or parents may take the view, that it is appropriate to have a greater percentage going into grammar schools, in which case it would be appropriate for them to vote in a ballot to increase grammar school provision in their area.

We must not forget that, if grammar schools are voted out of existence through the balloting process as it stands—a one-way door, a ratchet—we shall see not only grammar school status disappearing, but mergers and the restructuring of education systems in large parts of the country. That will create imbalances that can be evened out only by the provision of new grammar schools in areas where parents want them.

It is tragic that the Government have sought to avoid responsibility on this issue. Ordinarily, I should be happy to support the idea that a decision of this sort should be taken locally, by a ballot if that is the appropriate means of doing it; but I fear that underlying the Government's attitude toward our arguments and to the amendment that would extend ballots and choice to other parents is an unfortunate state of affairs whereby Ministers are trying to avoid responsibility. The Government are trying to farm the issue out to local ballots because they do not want to take responsibility as a Government or even as a party at local authority level.

I see my neighbour, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), sitting opposite; she will know well the constant battle over grammar schools in the borough of Trafford over the years. The Government are keen to remove the whole issue from the normal political arena precisely because of the popularity of grammar schools. It is most reprehensible of the Government to refuse to accept that all parents should have the same rights to vote in ballots. They refuse to accept responsibility and are farming the issue out to a skewed balloting arrangement in the clear hope and with the clear intention that, over time, grammar schools will be gradually chipped away.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the Government want to sustain their claim that they are not hostile in principle to the continued existence of grammar schools, the best way in which they could prove their case would be to provide in the Bill for a minimum turnout requirement in the ballots?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West 11:30 pm, 24th March 1998

I should be happy to have a minimum turnout requirement. However, I suspect that, for once, I disagree with my hon. Friend, because I think that the best way for the Government to demonstrate their good faith would be for them to accept the amendment. Doing so would clearly demonstrate that they believe in the principle of local decision making, that all parents should have an equal right to make decisions of that sort and that all parents should have a choice. It is most unfortunate that the Government do not accept that argument.

If the Government seek to defeat the amendment, as I fear they might, they will be putting their cards on the table and making it clear to the British people—especially those in constituencies where grammar schools exist, or those in nearby constituencies—that the Government harbour the same hostility toward grammar schools as Labour Back Benchers. In some ways, I should welcome a more honest and open approach from the Government than the weasel words which we have heard so far. In opposition, the Labour party says one thing when a by-election is pending; in office, it does another. That is most unacceptable.

Amendment No. 179 would be a crucial improvement to the Bill. It would tidy up the anomaly whereby in those areas where there are only some grammar schools and not a wholly selective system parents of children currently attending grammar schools are not able to vote in the ballot. That is utterly unacceptable to the parents of such children—they have a clear and direct interest in those schools. The words that the Government employ in their outline of the balloting procedures are clear: they say that the objective of the procedure is to give the choice and decision on the future of those grammar schools to those parents who have a direct interest in the future of those schools. However, the Government are still not prepared to allow those with the clearest possible direct interest—parents of children attending those schools—a vote on the future of those schools.

Amendment No. 179 would remove an anomaly. It would create fairness and it would be seen to be fair. The Government should recognise that there would be some clear benefit in that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood referred to a letter from the heads of the Reading and Kendrick schools. They draw attention to several serious anomalies and unfairnesses in the proposed balloting arrangements, and it would be constructive to consider one or two of them. The heads of the Reading and Kendrick schools say: If feeder schools are Junior rather than Junior Mixed and Infant, this means in some ballots Years R/1/2 parents will have votes, in others they will not. The right to vote will be determined by the detail of primary organisation. This is demonstrably both inconsistent and unfair. A common provision is needed. They also make clear the fact that the Reading and Kendrick schools have received children from more than 150 feeder schools during the past few years.

All those arguments point clearly to a balloting arrangement that is ill thought out and patently unfair, and which will not be well received in those parts of the country that are still pleased, proud and fortunate to retain grammar schools and selective education.

Finally, I shall discuss amendment—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I said that I had reached the final amendment that I would discuss; I did not give any hint about the detail in which I would discuss it. It is amendment No. 160, which is especially important to parents in my constituency.

It is vital to enshrine in the Bill provisions to ensure fairness in the balloting procedures, not just for the normal maintained county grammar schools, some of which are to be found in my constituency, but for the denominational grammar schools in my constituency.

There are two Roman Catholic grammar schools in my constituency. Under the Government's outline proposals on the balloting arrangements, the future of those schools will be decided not by the parents of children attending those schools, or by Catholic parents in my constituency, or even by Catholic parents throughout the borough of Trafford; their future will be decided in a single ballot, which will apply to Catholic schools and to non-Catholic schools. The Government's approach shows no consideration for the position of Catholic parents in my constituency, or in the borough of Trafford.

Amendment No. 160, which would allow the Government to take separately balloting arrangements on denominational grammar schools, has a vital purpose in restoring some fairness and balance to the Government's proposals. It would give Catholic parents the decision on the future of Catholic schools.

I suspect that such a position arises in very few parts of the country. Altrincham and Sale, West may be the only constituency in which there are two Roman Catholic grammar schools. Therefore, it is especially important—[Interruption.] I know that the hour is late, but the Secretary of State has had plenty of time out of the Chamber, and he could have had a strong cup of coffee to sustain him through this time. It is very unfortunate that he should yawn volubly during discussion of a crucial matter for the future of Catholic schools in my constituency. That is clear evidence of the trivial approach that he and his colleagues have taken to the future of denominational schools.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain to the House, in words of one syllable, how allowing children into a Catholic secondary school without an 11-plus threatens the school, the pupils or the ethos of the Catholic religion that they seek to obtain? Will he withdraw his remark, on the ground that he is seeking to frighten people into believing that selection is essential to keep the school open or to continue to have Catholic education available to those children?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I am pleased that I now have the close attention of the Secretary of State. I have no intention of withdrawing my remarks, because they represent the views of parents, as expressed to me when visiting the Catholic grammar schools in my constituency. It is unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman bats aside such serious and legitimate concerns.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

I have a simple question: does the amendment have the support of the Church education authorities—yes or no?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

The amendment has the support of the Catholic grammar schools in my constituency. The Minister should accept that it is my responsibility to represent the interests of my constituents, and I shall do so.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

Having visited the Catholic grammar schools in my hon. Friend's constituency just two weeks ago, I am concerned to hear that Ministers believe that parental preference and the views of teaching staff are secondary in the way in which the Government assess what they would call fair and just. When the Government took office, we heard, "Fairness and justice; fairness and justice; fairness and justice." There is nothing fair and just about ignoring the sincere and firmly held views of parents and staff. Does my hon. Friend think that, when the Labour party prays in aid—[Interruption.]

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I thank hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) for her intervention. Not only is there nothing fair and just about the way in which the Government are approaching the matter; it is not consistent with the principles that they have previously stated. Once again, the Government are failing to take into account their stated principle that the parents with a direct interest in the future of a school should decide the future of that school.

This is another clear instance of the Secretary of State—who is now indulging in ribald laughter instead of taking the point seriously—giving the right to vote in the ballot and make a decision not just to the parents with a direct interest in the future of the Catholic grammar schools, but to all the parents in the borough of Trafford. That is a clear breach of the principle that the Government have previously stated.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

If the only Catholic school in an area is a selective school, and a Catholic parent wishes to send his child to that Catholic school but the child fails the selection process, what choice is there for that child to attend a Catholic school? None at all.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to mention another of my excellent local schools—the Blessed Thomas Holford school, which is a fine Catholic secondary modern. Currently, if children do not get into the Catholic grammar schools, they have the option to go to the Catholic secondary school, which achieves results rather better than most comprehensive schools. It is another clear example of how a selective education system works, but I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will not want me to pursue that point further.

On the specific point raised by the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), I can say only that I am pleased to have a variety of Roman Catholic schools in my constituency[Interruption.] The Government proposal will limit choice, certainly for my constituents. That is unacceptable. The hon. Gentleman is looking puzzled, so I shall explain why. This might be relevant to the point raised by the Secretary of State, who has again disappeared from the Chamber.

The two Catholic grammar schools in my constituency were independent until last year. They were so impressed by grant-maintained status that they chose to opt into the state system so that they could take children regardless of their ability to pay. They are now providing free grammar school education to my constituents within a Catholic environment. As a result of the Government's proposals for the removal of grant-maintained status and the threat to grammar school status, at least one of those grammar schools, St. Ambrose college, is giving serious consideration to the possibility that the only way to protect its status as a Catholic school and as a grammar school is to leave the maintained sector again.

That should be a source of great embarrassment to Ministers and Labour Members. If they are creating an education policy that has the perverse effect of driving away good schools, to the extent that those schools not only change their status but leave the maintained sector, the policy is having an appalling effect.

The Minister has spoken of standards, not structures, but the Government's proposals are having a terrible effect and destroying a structure that works and provides choice. In this instance, their proposals are potentially even driving a school away from the maintained sector. That, in my view, is the definition of a failed education policy.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 11:45 pm, 24th March 1998

I shall speak briefly to amendment No. 179. I do so on behalf of my constituents who are parents at the Judd school and those who are parents at grammar schools in Dartford, Tunbridge Wells and elsewhere in Kent. Those are the parents who will be disfranchised under the ballot proposed in the Bill.

Many of those parents may have supported the Labour party at the general election, in Dartford and elsewhere in Kent. They may have been beguiled by that Labour slogan, "Standards, not structure", yet here we are, nine months later, debating structure, rather than standards. Any hon. Members who doubt that have only to look at clause 96(7): In this Chapter 'grammar school' means a school for the time being designated under this section. Grammar schools reflect not just the designation of Ministers or the prescription of councils. They reflect above all the consent of their communities and the approval of the parents who send their children to them. By disfranchising parents from the ballots that will decide the future of those schools, the Government are proposing a monstrous unfairness. I want the Minister to reconsider that disfranchisement.

When we proposed ballots for grant-maintained schools, we did not get the ballots and the rules for them entirely right. We subsequently revised them. However, two points are clear. First, we had the courage to write those ballots into the Bill. That is not the case in the present Bill. Pieces of paper were simply circulated in Committee. I defy any hon. Member to read the four relevant clauses and say how the ballots will work. They are being left to subsequent regulations.

Secondly, we made sure that where there were to be ballots for grant-maintained schools, they involved the parents of the schools. That was our cardinal principle. We did not enforce grant-maintained status. It was one of the options for status under the Education Reform Act 1988. The schools could have been local authority schools, city technology colleges or grant-maintained schools.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

Does not the method chosen by the Government, of making regulations later, raise the—I am sure unworthy—suspicion that they are waiting to analyse the results of their various focus groups, so that they might create the type of ballot that they think will give them the answer they most want?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

That may well be the case. I suspect that, in those four clauses, old Labour is still at work, and Labour has not properly thought through how it can move to the new Labour ground of effective consultation. It is noteworthy that, even in those local authorities where Labour took control and which have retained grammar schools, those Labour-controlled local authorities did not propose abolition of grammar schools, although they had the opportunity under the current statute to do so. Those Labour-controlled local authorities feared the reaction of local parents. Now, those precise parents will be the only group in their local area to be disfranchised. That is what Labour means by democracy.

Unless we pass amendment No. 179, those four clauses will be another example of the politics of envy. If Labour Members really believe in excellence, they should be attempting not to abolish but to extend—to build on the success of grammar schools, to build on the support that parents give to grammar schools, and to rejoice in that support—and to determine how they can strengthen the relationship between parents and their schools in other schools across our country.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I rise not in defence of any grammar schools in my constituency—I have none—but in defence of those constituencies, including Lichfield, which may want the opportunity to have a grammar school.

First, however, I join the clarion call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who asked why Labour Kent Members were not in the Chamber for this debate. I should like to know where the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) is. I was there for the Wirral, South by-election and heard him say that grammar schools were safe in Labour hands. It should be noted that he is not in the Chamber tonight.

Amendment No. 177 would deal with the asymmetry of the legislation, which says that there should be a ballot to get rid of grammar schools—

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

The hon. Gentleman says, "Good," from a sedentary position. However, if he supports balance, fairness and opportunity, which he talked about often enough in the general election—he nods assent now—why will he not also support balance in allowing grammar schools in areas that have none—[Interruption.] Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I shall heed your earlier admonition not to respond to sedentary interventions, the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), has just said, "Because you lost the general election." He defiantly tells parents, "You fell for our con. You voted Labour. You actually believed our promise that choice was safe in our hands. Now hear what we arrogantly say: there can be only one-sided ballots—to get rid of grammar schools, not to create them."

As I said in an earlier intervention, arrogant Labour Members and the Minister without Portfolio attack the BBC—perhaps rightly—for dumbing down, yet they belong to the very party that wishes to destroy centres of excellence. What hypocrisy. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] He came in earlier, but scurried out.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) said, there is a one-way ratchet. Once the decision has been made to get rid of a grammar school, history and excellence are destroyed.

I have a constituency interest—

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I am a generous person, and I shall give way shortly.

King Edward's school in Lichfield was founded 500 years ago. It was a grammar school, and Dr. Johnson was educated there. I know that some parents of pupils there would like the opportunity to choose whether it should be a grammar school again, but that opportunity is not being made available.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend referred a few moments ago to the Minister without Portfolio. Is he aware that the Minister benefited from a grammar school education? Does not he think it appalling and typical that the Minister is not in the Chamber now to witness the dirty work that he expects others to do in his name?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I thank my hon. Friend, but the Minister without Portfolio is not the only one who benefited from a grammar school education—the Minister for School Standards, who wants to be the hangman for opportunity in this country did, too. [Interruption.] The Government Whip, the hon. Member for Devonport, is another, and I am told that there are more.

A great opportunity is being destroyed. There is to be no opportunity to vote for a grammar school, and although there is to be an opportunity to get rid of a grammar school, it is not the parents of children who attend that school who can make that decision. Why not? If I were a suspicious person, I might say that it is because the Minister for School Standards, who benefited from a grammar school education, believes that, if those parents were balloted, they would want grammar schools to maintain their status. So what do the Government do? They are so determined, for dogmatic reasons, to destroy grammar schools that they disfranchise the parents of children at those schools and allow only the parents of children at the feeder schools to vote. They know that the majority of the parents of children at feeder schools would want all their children to attend a grammar school, and therefore think that the ballot would come out in their favour.

The Bill is ill thought out, as well as being asymmetrical and unfair. There is no mention of a quorum. How many people are going to be allowed to vote to do away with history? Will it be five or 10? If that many parents vote in favour of a change of status while the others stay at home, will that be sufficient to destroy certain schools and history, simply because of the politics of envy?

As my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out, there is no control of funding. What is to stop the National Union of Teachers and other pressure groups paying for campaigns to make sure that schools with an excellent history are destroyed in the way that I have described? There has been no consideration of this point, either in Committee or in the Bill itself. If, despite all the odds that the Minister has set up to try to destroy grammar schools, the ballot fails and a grammar school is maintained, there is absolutely nothing in the Bill to prevent another ballot from taking place five or 10 minutes later.

The Bill is ill thought out, and it shows the intrinsic weakness of new Labour. When it comes down to it, new Labour is no different from old Labour. All the Labour party wants is to destroy choice, opportunity and excellence; it wants to level down, and it despises the excellent.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill will do what Shirley Williams and old Labour could not do, and abolish all the remaining grammar schools? Far from being new Labour, this "new Labour" party is old Labour, with all the venom and spite involved.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

The Labour party is not just following in the footsteps of Shirley Williams; it is following in the footsteps of Anthony Crosland, who thought that it was his holy crusade to destroy excellence—an excellence that had been created so that people like the Ministers present tonight, who may or may not have been born with silver spoons in their mouths, would have the opportunity given to ordinary, decent people to excel if they had the ability to do so.

As I said, the Labour party wants to level down. It despises the excellent; it wants to promote unfairness; it wants to make a virtue out of dogma; it wants to destroy parents' choice in our country. More important, it wants to restrict the choice of our children and the future of the nation. I hope that the Labour party—and the Minister, who benefited from a grammar school education—will consider adopting amendment No. 177.

12 midnight

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

I had not intended to speak, but since my election I have made a practice of noting the times when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is speaking, or has tabled an amendment. I came into the Chamber tonight to listen to her speech, and to note what she was saying. [Interruption.] Labour Members may have pause for thought in a moment.

Let me draw the House's attention to the precise words to which my right hon. Friend's amendment No. 165 attempts to draw its attention. Clause 97(9) states: An authority or body"— in this context, a governing body— to whom this subsection applies shall not … publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears designed to influence the result of a ballot". My right hon. Friend proposes that a codicil should be added to that, providing that such arguments should not benefit from public funds.

The issue that we are debating in the context of amendment No. 165 is not related to grammar schools, and is not related purely to ballots. It is not related to educational choice; indeed, it is not an education issue at all. We are debating an issue relating to free speech, a fundamental liberty that the House defends. Indeed, the very purpose of the House's existence is to defend free speech in this country.

Tonight the Government have an opportunity to refute a proposition that is implicit in my right hon. Friend's amendment—that they are a Government who deny, and wish to continue to deny, and wish to legislate to deny, the right to free speech. To refute that proposition, the Government need only accept the three simple words suggested by my right hon. Friend.

Let us remember that, in the past few months, the Government have defended efforts by the European Commission to issue propaganda in favour of certain measures, with the use of public money. They have defended those efforts on the basis that the public deserve to be informed. Here we have a harmless governing body—a group of men and women, many of whom are doubtless parents, who have put themselves forward conscientiously with the aim of understanding the interests of their schools. What do the Government propose? They propose to legislate to prevent that body—the group of men and women most closely concerned with the school—from expressing a corporate opinion about a matter that is closely related to their interests, and, in many cases, the interests of their children.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Conservative, Aylesbury

Does my hon. Friend agree that the implication of the Bill as it stands is that, if those volunteers, the members of the governing body, pressed ahead nevertheless and spent money—not public funds, but money voluntarily donated to protect the admission arrangements of their schools—the Bill would seek to make them criminals? Is that not a complete denial of justice and democracy?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

With his customary acuity, my hon. Friend moves the debate to the next question: what is the actual effect of the subsection? Is it, as he suggests, the intent to make criminals of such a body? I do not know whether it is possible in English law to make criminals of a body corporate. That raises a most interesting question. If it is not, is such action intended to be unlawful so that it could be prevented by injunction? Are we perhaps in the terrain suggested by the Lord Chancellor, when he proposed—I believe contrary to the opinions of many of his Front-Bench colleagues—that there should be injunctions ex ante to prevent certain things from being said by the press? Are we, on the contrary, dealing with something that would enable somebody to sue a governing body? If so, on what basis? We do not know.

I very much suspect that the Minister, for whom my hon. Friends and I have considerable respect, has included the statement in the Bill without sufficient thought about the consequences not just in education but across the terrain of public liberty. What is it to legislate to prevent a body corporate that does not use public money from making a statement, perfectly reasonably, about things that intimately concern it and its community? Is it to create criminals of such a body?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

Is not what emerges from the clauses the extent to which Government Front Benchers—undoubtedly the Secretary of State and the Minister—have been torn by the realisation that only by creating a rigged ballot can they get their way? It is because they have realised that that is an unpalatable truth that they have kept the clauses so vague. In fact, they do not know what to do.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

I think that my hon. Friend must be right. Ministers hope by the vagueness of the clauses to catch much, not knowing what they may in practice be having to catch.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

I am absolutely convinced that the Government, in their better moments, cannot conceivably intend to achieve the effect that the subsection would achieve in the absence of amendment No. 165.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

The Minister cannot possibly tell us that it is the Government's intention to restrict free speech in this country.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

Has my hon. Friend considered whether the Bill might be in contravention of article 2 of the European convention on human rights, on the protection of minorities and freedom of speech? Does he think that the Bill has been cleared by the Government in that respect?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I was coming exactly to that question. The situation is worse than he imagines. The Government do not rely merely on the European convention on human rights; they seek to enact it in British law. Has the Minister considered how a British court will adjudicate on the possibility of an injunction, criminal proceedings or whatever the Government may imagine under the clause, given the human rights legislation that they promote?

I cannot imagine, in the light of human rights legislation, the many things that the Government have said about freedom of information and the whole tenor of their rhetoric, that they genuinely intend to argue that free speech on these matters should be prevented by law. This must therefore be a case of legislative mischance. The draftsman must have slipped up. The Government must not have intended to put what they have included in the clause.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, with her customary generosity, has offered the Government in three simple words a way of defending themselves against an attack that will otherwise resonate not just for the next few weeks or months, but for coming years.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

Such an attack will be based on the principle of free speech, which the House must support—Labour Members as much as Conservative Members.

I genuinely hope that the Minister will tell us that, regardless of whatever else he accepts, he is willing to accept amendment No. 165. If he fails to do that, he will stand convicted of believing that individuals, knowing their situation and that of their children, should not be allowed to take a view.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am a strong supporter of grammar schools. I should dearly like there to be more. It is natural that I should support my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) on the amendments. I shall focus my remarks on amendments Nos. 177 and 165.

Labour Members have made some rumbustious, but not very articulate, sedentary interventions on the schooling of certain hon. Members. During the outstandingly eloquent speech that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) has just made in support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) made comments about the old Etonian background of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. I take this opportunity to emphasise that, in supporting amendment No. 177, I am motivated by an overwhelming desire to ensure that people who have not enjoyed a grammar school education and those who do not currently enjoy such an education should offer that prospect to others in future.

Unlike Labour Members, I am not shy about my educational background. I have no hesitation in stating that I did not enjoy the benefit of a public school or a grammar school education. It was my dubious privilege to go to a mid-market comprehensive school in the Finchley constituency then represented by my right hon. and noble Friend, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. I am delighted that, with the assistance of a small number of outstanding teachers and some application on my part, I managed to get to university.

It is a matter of concern that, though the hon. Member for Rotherham is happy to make abusive remarks about the education of others, he is not prepared to acknowledge the reality of his own. He is probably weak on the principle of free speech, and he is certainly weak on full disclosure. In his biographical details, he is suddenly afflicted by an unusual bout of reticence, which most of my hon. Friends have not previously detected in his character. He acknowledges that he—the great anti-elitist—went to Merton college, Oxford. I believe that he gained an MA in modern history at that noble establishment.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

I assure my hon. Friend that he should not judge Merton college entirely by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would return to the amendments.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I happily return to the amendments. I was emphasising the rationale behind the support of Conservative Members for amendment No. 177. Those who have not enjoyed a grammar school education can wish others to do so. I simply observe that, if the hon. Member for Rotherham opposes amendment No. 177 and refrains from making a proper, crafted speech, preferring to make down-market and offensive contributions from a sedentary position, he should at least—in the context, of course, of debating amendment No. 177—make his educational background clear.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Would my hon. Friend be interested to learn that not only are we not hearing from the hon. Member for Rotherham in the Chamber, but that any reference to where he went to secondary school has been deleted not only from "Dod" but also from "Who's Who"? The hon. Gentleman went to Merton college, Oxford, but it is a complete mystery where he was before that. Perhaps he would like to volunteer the information. Could he have been at Eton too?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 12:15 am, 24th March 1998

As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and as I am sure the House will be happy to acknowledge, I am always, everywhere and in every particular a charitable individual, so it is not be for me to impugn the motives or the integrity of the hon. Gentleman, despite the disgusting socks that he regularly sports in the Chamber.

None the less, it is a matter of legitimate concern that, although he has opposed from a sedentary position amendment No. 177, and even amendment No. 165, which was so ably and articulately explained by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, the hon. Gentleman has declined to divulge to the House his educational background. If there is a secret of which he is ashamed, the best way to ensure that it is kept in perpetuity is to rise to his feet in the House of Commons at this time of night and make a speech.

The issues in the debate, exemplified by the amendments, are of the essence in the context of our objections to the Bill. I begin my remarks about them by acknowledging at the outset that the Minister for School Standards has been fair in giving a hearing to views different from his own.

In the presence of other hon. Members who are aware of the fact, I can tell the House that a meeting sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and attended by my hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and by several Buckinghamshire county councillors was held at the Department for Education and Employment on 6 November.

The courtesy of the Minister's acceptance of our representations is not in doubt, although the soundness of his subsequent response most assuredly is. That is a matter for regret. There are good reasons why Conservative Members wish not only for the retention but for the extension of grammar schools in the United Kingdom. It is painfully apparent that not one Labour Member present is prepared to argue the case for grammar schools.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

Did it not become apparent at the meeting that we were really trying to do the Minister a good turn? One thing is certain: the loser from the Bill will be the Government. They may not get their referendums, but if they do get them they may lose them, and if they win them, there will be such disruption to the school system in Buckinghamshire that standards will fall.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is right. At that meeting and in our subsequent contributions to the debate we sought to help the Government. We attempted to extract them from the imbroglio into which their internal party politics had plunged them—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

If the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has difficulty in understanding that word, I suggest that he repairs to the Library, even at this late hour, and consults a copy of the "Oxford English Dictionary". I assure the right hon. Gentleman that he will find the word there.

There are good arguments both for the retention and for the extension of grammar schools, of which the first is that they are successful. They are beacons of excellence in the education system. I put it to the House, and more particularly to my right hon. and hon. Friends, that it is precisely the grammar schools' success that is the source of Labour Members' resentment of them.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just grammar schools that are successful, but the selective system? If one compares the composite results of grammar schools and secondary modem schools with neighbouring LEAs with comprehensive systems, one finds that all the children at the grammar schools and the secondary modern schools—

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

The hon. Gentleman may be a public school boy. I do not know—I do not want to be rude. The evidence suggests that grammar schools and the selective system help all children in a given area.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is entirely correct, and it is precisely for that reason that we wish to see the possibility of the extension of grammar schools. Grammar schools' very presence provides a catalyst for the raising of standards throughout the system.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Conservative, Aylesbury

Does my hon. Friend recall that the results from schools in our county show that secondary modern schools and upper schools in Buckinghamshire—despite Labour Members' allegations that grammar schools have creamed off the top 25 or 30 per cent. of the intake—were nevertheless often attaining significantly better results than comparable comprehensive schools in neighbouring counties?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Moreover, the point is underlined by what people said during the election campaign. If the Government's logic is to be followed, it necessarily implies that, in an area where there are one or more grammar schools—attended, inevitably, by a minority of local children—the parents of most other children locally are antipathetic to grammar schools. The evidence is demonstrably the opposite.

In Buckinghamshire, only a small proportion of children go to grammar schools—in my constituency, it is a small proportion—yet support for grammar schools is enormous. In the context of this debate, I appeared on Channel 4 the other day. As a consequence, I have received a stream of letters from parents of pupils at schools other than the grammar school in my constituency saying that they strongly support and wish to see extended the number of grammar schools—and, therefore, that they strongly support amendment No. 177.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

Does my hon. Friend recall that, in April and May of last year, so great was the popularity of grammar schools among Buckinghamshire parents that the local Liberal Democrats got extremely upset—to the extent of threatening legal action—when it was pointed out that they had opposed selective education over many years? Does this explain their silence in tonight's debate?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The lily-livered Liberal Democrats, in their characteristic fashion, had said one thing in the past, were not prepared to admit to it in the present, and denied their intention to revert to it in the future. That is of a piece with Liberal Democrats' politics—they are pioneers in unprincipled politics, and they are without equal in the UK.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I cannot let the debate pass without mentioning Clitheroe royal grammar school in my constituency and the fact that my Liberal Democrat opponent said during the election that he did not support the retention of the grammar school and the selective procedure. I believe that that was one of the reasons I had one of the lowest swings in the country against me. Does not the fact that grammar schools are oversubscribed show their popularity? People want to go to grammar schools, and they travel for miles—even from outside my constituency—to Clitheroe royal grammar school because of the good education that it delivers.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I have no doubt that the quality of grammar schools in my hon. Friend's area was a significant contributor to his success at the election, but it would be unfair to pass on without mentioning that his success must also have been due to his outstanding diligence and charm, which are regularly on display in equal measure.

I fear that, in developing the point about the success and continuing popularity of grammar schools, I am inviting comments—it is a welcome invasion—from the hordes of my hon. Friends who have stories to tell of the dramatic successes of the grammar schools and upper schools in their constituencies. It is a merry tale.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The problem is that it becomes rather repetitive.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Far be it from me to want to fall foul of the amiable temper that is usually on display in the Speaker's Chair. I shall therefore take note of your kindly advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I cannot resist the opportunity to refer to the success of grammar schools nationally and locally, as that provides the rationale for amendment No. 177, which represents our request that individuals be granted the opportunity to vote to create grammar schools as well as to destroy them. The success of grammar schools nationally is not in doubt—no Labour Member has argued that they are failures.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

Does my hon. Friend agree that the mechanism suggested in amendment No. 177 would enable more grammar schools to be retained? If the purpose of the Bill is to abolish grammar schools, does he think that that would in any way raise educational standards? In answering that question, will he be mindful of Pates grammar school in Gloucester, which has 170 applicants for each place?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who confirms the popularity of and demand for grammar schools. The idea is absurd and illogical that, by dismantling those institutions that are already achieving excellence, we increase the chances of achieving excellence elsewhere in the system at some time in the future.

Nationally, grammar schools are tremendously successful: 94 per cent. of children who attend them obtain five or more GCSEs at grades A to C; more than 94 per cent. stay on in the sixth forms of those schools; and more than 88 per cent. of them go on to higher education. That all testifies to the institutions' success.

Locally, in Buckinghamshire, the position is similar. At the Royal Latin grammar school in Buckingham, 96 per cent. of children in the relevant age cohort secure at least five GCSEs at grades A to C, and more than 64 per cent. achieve A-levels at grades A to C. A substantial proportion of those children go on to higher education.

Grammar schools are succeeding, which is a powerful reason why those who do not have the opportunity of a grammar school education should be given one and why future generations should also be afforded that opportunity. That would be consistent with what the Secretary of State said in opposition—as was reported in the Financial Times of 7 February 1997. He said that a Labour Government would pose no threat to the continuance, ethos or quality of grammar schools. If that is what he believes, why is he going to allow ballots, which will have no minimum turnout requirement, to destroy excellence overnight? That simply does not hang together logically.

If the Secretary of State values or does not want to threaten the ethos of those schools, what is the objection in principle to giving people the opportunity to spread that ethos elsewhere in the education system? Perhaps the Minister can tell us tonight—or should I say this morning?

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is not only obvious demand for the grammar school ethos but huge scope for a wider variety of schools? The highly academic ethos of the grammar school is by no means the only successful model that ought to be spread round the country.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 12:30 am, 24th March 1998

I am in favour of having as wide a market and as great a diversity in education as possible. That is our commitment and our belief, and that was our record. That could not credibly be said of the Labour Government. That is why we support amendment No. 177.

We also support amendment No. 165, for the reasons eloquently stated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald and by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. We believe passionately in free speech. Either the Government believe in the principle and practice of free speech or they do not.

If the Government are content with the idea that trade unions can mount expensive and probably unrepresentative campaigns against grammar schools, why are they not prepared to allow governing bodies to campaign for them, especially if they do not do so at public expense? The concern about public expense expressed by the Minister has been met by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, so the Government should accept amendment No. 165.

I cannot for a moment see why teachers and governors of grammar schools should be required to keep mum and to preserve neutrality on whether the institutions to which they have given outstanding commitment should continue to exist. The idea that they should be obliged to remain impartial between good and bad, right and wrong, future success and future failure, is positively absurd.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald made the argument overwhelmingly for amendment No. 165, and the response from Conservative Members demonstrated beyond peradventure that we all agree with her. What credible argument does the Minister have to offer in response? Let it be stated this morning, and let it be lucid.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

I could not resist the temptation offered by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) to reply to this important debate. We have listened to Opposition Members' concerns about our proposals. We certainly do not treat these matters as trivial, as some of them suggested. I have been pleased to discuss these matters with several right hon. and hon. Members. We want the ballot procedures to be open, fair and transparent.

We have been helped in drawing up the draft proposals by Opposition Members' contributions. I have been pleased to be able to meet several of them—not only those from Buckinghamshire—and they have taken me in detail through the arguments as they affect their schools. I believe that our proposals, which I shared with members of the Standing Committee, reflected in some measure some of their contributions. I regret the fact that we could not meet all the concerns that were expressed, but we were able to move some way towards addressing them.

I have to disagree with the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who said at the beginning of the debate that he had no notion of the detailed procedures that the Government would want to adopt. We circulated draft proposals to Committee members, which ran to seven pages and 37 separate paragraphs and which revealed our present thinking, but we are prepared to continue to listen. Indeed, one of the benefits of this debate is that Conservative Members have raised a number of issues which I am certainly prepared to reflect on and reconsider in the light of our draft proposals.

The right hon. Member for Charnwood raised one issue on which I agreed. He said that, if we had wanted, we could have moved in this Bill to the abolition of grammar schools. The Bill does not do that. In fact, it honours our manifesto commitment in the run-up to the election on 1 May, when we said clearly that the future of grammar schools would be a matter for local parents to determine. That is exactly the policy that is reflected in the regulations and the proposed approach that we shared with Committee members. Local parents will be able to determine the future of grammar schools: not local education authorities, not individual schools, not the National Union of Teachers, but local parents, will have the power and responsibility to determine the future of those schools.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

At the risk of embarrassing the hon. Gentleman, I want to place it on record that I have the highest admiration for his talents and ability as a Minister. I hope that he will take my point in good part. To prove his good intentions, will he now give the House a commitment that, when the regulations are issued, they will contain something specific on the subject of a minimum ballot turnout before a grammar school can be abolished?

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

There is a far better way to approach the issue, which is by providing a minimum number to trigger the petition. If there is not local support for a ballot, it would be far more effective to ensure that that is tested at a far earlier stage than looking at turnouts at the ballot itself, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear since the early days of our consideration of this matter that we will expect a petition to be triggered by 20 per cent. of eligible parents, reflecting the position that Conservative Members adopted on grant-maintained school ballots. So that is the position.

I can go further and say that there will not be a rolling petition going from school year to school year. The Government intend to ensure that the petition is triggered in the school year in which signatures are first collected. That has always been our intention, and we shared that with the right hon. Member for Charnwood in Committee.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Will the Minister therefore assure the House that the petition will not merely be time-limited, but that, if an attempt is made in one school year to mount a petition and the promoters fail to secure the support of at least 20 per cent. of parents, it will not be possible for a further petition to be mounted for five years?

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

No, I am not prepared to give that undertaking, because our view is that the moratorium should apply to a ballot once it has been held. I think the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) said that there could be one ballot and then another five minutes later. Our present thinking is that there should be a moratorium of five years on ballots, rather than petitions. We are of the view that local parents should be able to trigger the petition in any one school year, and do not intend to block parents expressing their views by doing so.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Therefore, why should not parents at the school be able to be involved in that ballot?

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

There will be two different situations. I think hon. Members are aware of the distinction that we have drawn between whole authority-wide ballots, in which parents will be involved, and free-standing ballots. We have taken the view that, on balance, it is not appropriate for only a grammar school's parents to make the decision on that school; it should be the feeder schools.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that all parents of children attending secondary schools—not only the grammar schools but other secondary schools—should be part of the ballot? If he is, we may want to reflect on it, because it would allow all parents whose children go to secondary schools to have a vote on whether secondary education should be selective or non-selective. It is a logical conclusion of his point that, if grammar school parents have a ballot, it should be extended to all parents with children at secondary schools. Is that what he is suggesting?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I know that the Minister has been thinking about these matters. By inviting us to consider whether parents of all secondary schools in an area should be involved, he is admitting that it is wrong to disfranchise the parents of the grammar school itself.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

No. We believe that our proposals, which would make the parents of children attending feeder schools the electorate, is the right way forward. I am saying in a spirit of generosity, to open up a dialogue with the hon. Gentleman, that, if he is suggesting that we should spread the franchise to parents of children attending all secondary schools, I would be prepared to consider it.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

In Buckinghamshire, in my constituency, there is much movement between upper schools and grammar schools of pupils aged 15 and 16. That is another argument for allowing all those in secondary education to be included. If I understood it, the Minister's rationale was that those directly affected, without going to a de minimis rule, should be allowed the vote. If it is to go to those who are directly affected, the parents of pupils at grammar schools must be included.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

Yes, and in many cases they will be, because we will distinguish between free-standing grammar schools and places where a wholly selective system covers a local education authority. In those circumstances, the parents of children attending grammar schools will have a vote.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

I shall not give way for a while, because it has been a lengthy debate and I wish to make some progress.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made several important points. I have reflected carefully on them, and on those that he made when we met a couple of weeks ago about our proposals on the details of the balloting arrangements. On the campaign, we have made it clear that, if there is any misleading information that might materially affect the outcome of a ballot, the Secretary of State will have the power to declare it void. That reflects the position on balloting arrangements for grant-maintained status.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) discussed amendment No. 165 and said that there was a gagging clause. I would not have put it like that, but she is right to say that we have sought to introduce restrictions on the information that governing bodies and local education authorities can provide.

I listened to the right hon. Lady carefully. I considered at an earlier stage the possibility of introducing a condition about campaigning at public expense to overcome the concerns that she expressed. Practically, it will be difficult to distinguish between spending at public expense by the local education authority or a school governing body, and spending money that may be raised by the people involved.

There is no attempt to gag or to deny free speech. There will be nothing to stop the governors of a grammar school setting themselves up as friends of the grammar school to campaign against selection. They will be entitled to do that, not as governors but in their separate capacity as individual members of the local population. They will be free to do that.

Amendment No. 177 would allow new grammar schools to be established. We believe that grammar schools and the selective system are flawed, which is why we are drawing a line in the sand and saying that there will be no new grammar schools and that it will be a matter for local parents to determine the future of the 164 grammar schools that remain.

We do that because we take the view that selection denies choice. It is the school that chooses, not the parent who selects. We had a good example from the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who said that, in one of his local schools, 170 parents were competing for each place. The reality is that 169 parents are denied the school of their choice. That is the nature of selection.

Photo of Stephen Byers Stephen Byers Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Employment

No, I want to make progress.

I shall be asking the House to reject amendment No. 177 because it would simply turn the clock back to the days of the 11-plus and a massive waste of talent. At the age of 11, some young people were deemed to be a success, but the majority were deemed to be failures. Labour Members are not prepared to endorse such an approach, which is why I ask the House to reject amendment No. 177.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education 12:45 am, 24th March 1998

The Minister started off sounding reasonably encouraging, but he finished with a tone that was, I am afraid, depressingly familiar and predictable. Anyone listening to the arguments made in the debate must conclude that my right hon. and hon. Friends have made a powerful case, to which the Minister made little or no attempt to respond. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was not arguing that we should seek to introduce a traditional selective system across the country, but made the point that the Bill promised his constituents the proposition that the status of Ripon grammar should be permanently open to question—and that from a Government who say that they are interested in standards, not structure.

No one can look at the results achieved by the grammar schools and the other schools serving my right hon. Friend's constituents and say that the system as a whole is not delivering quality. Yet the Government whose slogan is that they are interested in standards, not structure, threaten my right hon. Friend's constituents with the prospect that the arrangements that serve them well will be subject to upheaval and change.

Such change would not be devoted to delivering standards. No case has been made against the standards delivered to my right hon. Friend's constituents. The structure would be reformed in a way that would satisfy the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and a large number of Labour Back Benchers, but also in a way that the Minister is perceptibly uncomfortable in defending. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon made a case to which the Minister did not respond.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, on Second Reading, when the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) made his disreputable comment about grammar schools, the Minister for School Standards raised his eyebrows and looked askance in my right hon. Friend's direction, then at me, in naked embarrassment?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

It is fair to say that that was not the only moment in the debate when the Minister for School Standards looked as though he would have preferred to be somewhere else.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) proposed that the admissions authority—the governing body of a school—should have the opportunity to present the school's case. Some of those schools have 500 years'—sometimes even more—experience of delivering high-quality service. All that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) seek is the opportunity for the governing body, as the authority in charge of the school, to present the case for the school's record.

The Minister's response was that, as private citizens, the governors can go out raise money and present the case; but he did not offer any prospect that the governing body as the governing body can present the case to parents of children at the school and its feeder schools for the way in which the school operates. Once again, the Minister did not respond to the case made by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Will my right hon. Friend assist me before I determine how to cast my vote? I raise a serious matter on behalf of the parents of children at the Queen Elizabeth high school and the Caistor grammar school. In times past, when there were many grammar schools, the feeder schools were in the immediate locality; now, such schools are so popular that they are drawing pupils from miles around, from Nottinghamshire and Grimsby and from feeder schools that are very distant from those ancient grammar schools. Will my right hon. Friend assist me, because the Minister clearly has not, by explaining exactly how the feeder schools are to be defined? Should we not know that before we vote on the matter?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I wish that I could help my hon. Friend, who seeks reassurance. I invite him to support the amendment, because the Minister has failed—not only this evening, but throughout repeated debates on this subject in Committee—to offer answers to the question that my hon. Friend poses. Here we have 163 schools, the future of which Is to be determined by a balloting process, but the Minister has resolutely refused to offer more than general guidance about how the ballots are to be held, who is to vote, which schools are to be considered feeder schools, or who within the feeder schools is to have a vote.

I asked several questions in my opening speech about which parents from which feeder schools will have a vote in what circumstances, but the Minister did not even address any of those questions when winding up the debate. I should love to be able to offer my hon. Friend answers to his questions, but I cannot, because the Government insist that the House decides the substance of the clause without telling the House what will be its practical effect on the delivery of service by individual schools.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Perhaps I can assist my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) by quoting from the Labour party manifesto, on which the Minister relied heavily during his remarks. In extraordinary detail, the manifesto states—

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

The manifesto states—I approximate—that local parents will decide—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. What the hon. Gentleman must do in an intervention is abbreviate.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

In an abbreviated form, would my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) concede that most people would deem "local parents deciding" to mean local parents with a direct interest in the school?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

That is precisely right, which brings me to the next question the Minister failed to answer in his winding-up speech. Surely to goodness, the people who have the closest and greatest interest in the continued existence of a grammar school are the parents of the children in the school.

I return to the question with which I started the debate: what is the basis on which the Minister will defend his system when he has to explain to the parents of children in a free-standing grammar school that parents of children in the primary schools that feed the grammar school will have a vote to determine the future of the grammar school, but parents of children actually being educated in the grammar school will have no vote whatever in determining the future status of that school? One can have a parent—

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I have said it before, as the hon. Gentleman says. It is not tedious repetition; I am reminding the House that the Minister did not answer that question when he replied to the debate. That question will come back to hit the Ministers when they have to explain to parents why they do not have a vote in deciding the future of the school in which their children are being educated.

The parents of 11-year-olds will find that, although seven years of their child's education have been committed to a specific school, the future status of that school will be decided not—as the Government promised before the general election—by the parents of children with an interest in the school, but by parents of children in primary schools, some of whom may well have an interest in the future of the school, but others of whom, before their children reach the age of 11, may move to a different area and have no interest in the school's future.

I asked several more questions in my opening speech. How can it possibly be sensible for all the parents of a mixed feeder school to vote for the future status of a single-sex grammar school? Should parents of girls in primary schools vote on the future status of the boys' grammar school? How can that be justified?

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said that parents must have a right to vote in determining decisions about the school in which their children are being educated. He also emphasised the most important of the principles that came up in the debate—to which, once again, the Minister did not respond: the question whether we should create an opportunity for the success of grammar schools that deliver high-quality service to be copied, extended and reproduced in parts of the country that do not currently have that system.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I have just taken advice, and I am advised that, in Committee, the question whether the provisions would breach article 2 of the European convention on human rights was not raised. Does my right hon. Friend believe that there is a possible conflict, and could there be a reference to the European Court of Human Rights in respect of these provisions?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is right to ask whether there can be a conflict. There might indeed be such a conflict, as the Government propose that a decision affecting individual children be taken for those children by the parents of a collection of other children, brought together by the Minister's guidance but excluding the parents of the children most directly involved in the individual school whose future is in question.

The proposition—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Workington complains about the fact that I keep returning to the point. I have returned to the point because I believe firmly that it is the fatal flaw in the Government's proposal.

The essence of the question before the House tonight is whether grammar schools are safe with the Government. That was the pledge—the reassurance—that the Labour party sought to give, first at the time of the Wirral by-election and then during the general election campaign. I remind the House of what the Secretary of State said of such schools in the run-up to the general election: that there would be no threat to their continuance, or to their ethos, or to their quality". How can anyone who has listened to the debate, and to the views expressed from a sedentary position by a wide variety of Labour Back Benchers, continue to believe that the Government offer no threat to the continuance of grammar schools? That is not the essence of the message that has come from the Labour Benches tonight.

I shall seek, therefore, to withdraw amendment No. 175, in order to seek to divide the House on amendment No. 177. Amendment No. 177 would allow individual schools that want to promote themselves as grammar schools to seek the support of parents of children attending the school to take a successful formula and to introduce it where they can obtain the support of local parents to do so.

It is impossible to argue against extending the principle where it is seen to work and generalising good practice. I seek the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends and, indeed, anyone else in the House, for that important principle. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 177, in page 70, line 32, at end insert— '(3A) Regulations may make provision that where a maintained school is not a grammar school,—

  1. (a) the admission authority for a school may submit an application to the Secretary of State to change the admission arrangements of the school so that the school will qualify for designation as a grammar school under this section;
  2. (b) when the Secretary of State receives an application under this subsection he shall arrange for a ballot of parents who would qualify to vote in a ballot under section 97 and if a majority of those parents support the application of the admission authority, the admission authority shall secure that the admission arrangeents of the school are revised in accordance with its proposal.'.—[Mr. Dorrell.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 128, Noes 279.

Division No. 225][1 am
AYES
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelHowarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Arbuthnot, JamesHunter, Andrew
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Baldry, TonyJenkin, Bernard
Beggs, RoyJohnson Smith,
Bercow, JohnRt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Beresford, Sir PaulKey, Robert
Blunt, CrispinKing, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Boswell, TimKirkbride, Miss Julie
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Brady, GrahamLait, Mrs Jacqui
Brazier, JulianLansley, Andrew
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterLeigh, Edward
Browning, Mrs AngelaLetwin, Oliver
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Burns, SimonLidington, David
Butterfill, JohnLilley, Rt Hon Peter
Chapman, Sir SydneyLloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
(Chipping Barnet)Loughton, Tim
Chope, ChristopherLuff, Peter
Clappison, JamesLyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Clifton-Brown, GeoffreyMacKay, Andrew
Colvin, MichaelMaclean, Rt Hon David
Cran, JamesMcLoughlin, Patrick
Curry, Rt Hon DavidMalins, Humfrey
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)Maples, John
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)Mates, Michael
Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenMaude, Rt Hon Francis
Duncan, AlanMawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Duncan Smith, IainMay, Mrs Theresa
Emery, Rt Hon Sir PeterMoss, Malcolm
Evans, NigelNicholls, Patrick
Faber, DavidNorman, Archie
Fabricant, MichaelOttaway, Richard
Fallon, MichaelPage, Richard
Flight, HowardPaice, James
Forth, Rt Hon EricPaterson, Owen
Fox, Dr LiamPickles, Eric
Fraser, ChristopherPrior, David
Gibb, NickRandall, John
Gill, ChristopherRedwood, Rt Hon John
Gillan, Mrs CherylRobathan, Andrew
Gorman, Mrs TeresaRobertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Gray, JamesRowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Green, DamianRuffley, David
Greenway, JohnSt Aubyn, Nick
Grieve, DominicSayeed, Jonathan
Gummer, Rt Hon JohnSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchieSpelman, Mrs Caroline
Hammond, PhilipSpicer, Sir Michael
Hawkins, NickSpring, Richard
Hayes, JohnStanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Heald, OliverSteen, Anthony
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon DavidStreeter, Gary
Swayne, DesmondWhitney, Sir Raymond
Syms, RobertWhittingdale, John
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Taylor, John M (Solihull)Willetts, David
Taylor, Sir TeddyWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Tredinnick, DavidWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Trend, MichaelYeo, Tim
Tyrie, AndrewYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
Viggers, Peter
Walter, RobertTellers for the Ayes:
Wardle, CharlesSir David Madel and Mr. Stephen Day.
Waterson, Nigel
NOES
Abbott, Ms DianeCunliffe, Lawrence
Allan, RichardCunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Allen, GrahamDafis, Cynog
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)Dalyell, Tam
Atherton, Ms CandyDarling, Rt Hon Alistair
Baker, NormanDarvill, Keith
Ballard, Mrs JackieDavey, Edward (Kingston)
Barnes, HarryDavey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Barron, KevinDavidson, Ian
Bayley, HughDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Benn, Rt Hon TonyDavies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)
Bennett, Andrew FDawson, Hilton
Berry, RogerDenham, John
Betts, CliveDonohoe, Brian H
Blackman, LizDoran, Frank
Blears, Ms HazelDowd, Jim
Blizzard, BobDrown, Ms Julia
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidEagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Brake, TomEdwards, Huw
Brand, Dr PeterEllman, Mrs Louise
Breed, ColinEnnis, Jeff
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Fearn, Ronnie
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Fisher, Mark
Browne, DesmondFitzpatrick, Jim
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Fitzsimons, Lorna
Buck, Ms KarenFlint, Caroline
Burden, RichardFlynn, Paul
Burgon, ColinFoster, Don (Bath)
Burstow, PaulFoster, Michael J (Worcester)
Byers, StephenFoulkes, George
Caborn, RichardFyfe, Maria
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Galloway, George
Campbell-Savours, DaleGapes, Mike
Canavan, DennisGeorge, Andrew (St Ives)
Cann, JamieGibson, Dr Ian
Caplin, IvorGilroy, Mrs Linda
Casale, RogerGodman, Norman A
Caton, MartinGolding, Mrs Llin
Chaytor, DavidGrant, Bernie
Chisholm, MalcolmGriffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Church, Ms JudithGriffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clapham, MichaelGrocott, Bruce
Clark, Dr LyndaGrogan, John
(Edinburgh Pentlands)Hain, Peter
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Clelland, DavidHall, Patrick (Bedford)
Clwyd, AnnHancock, Mike
Coaker, VernonHanson, David
Coffey, Ms AnnHarris, Dr Evan
Coleman, IainHarvey, Nick
Colman, TonyHeal, Mrs Sylvia
Connarty, MichaelHealey, John
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Cooper, YvetteHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Corbett, RobinHepburn, Stephen
Corbyn, JeremyHeppell, John
Corston, Ms JeanHewitt, Ms Patricia
Cousins, JimHill, Keith
Cox, TomHinchliffe, David
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Hoey, Kate
Cummings, JohnHome Robertson, John
Hoon, GeoffreyMcDonagh, Siobhain
Hope, PhilMacdonald, Calum
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)McDonnell, John
Howells, Dr KimMcFall, John
Hoyle, LindsayMcGuire, Mrs Anne
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)McIsaac, Shona
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)McLeish, Henry
Hurst, AlanMcNulty, Tony
Hutton, JohnMacShane, Denis
Iddon, Dr BrianMactaggart, Fiona
Illsley, EricMahon, Mrs Alice
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)Mandelson, Peter
Jamieson, DavidMarek, Dr John
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Johnson, Miss MelanieMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
(Welwyn Hatfield)Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Martlew, Eric
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Jones, Ms JennyMiller, Andrew
(Wolverh'ton SW)Mitchell, Austin
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)Moffatt, Laura
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Keeble, Ms SallyMorgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Keetch, PaulMorgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Kemp, FraserMorris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)Mountford, Kali
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)Mudie, George
Kidney, DavidMullin, Chris
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Kumar, Dr AshokNaysmith, Dr Doug
Laxton, BobNorris, Dan
Lepper, DavidOaten, Mark
Levitt, TomO'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)O'Hara, Eddie
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)Olner, Bill
Lock, DavidO'Neill, Martin
McAvoy, ThomasÖpik, Lembit
McCabe, StevePearson, Ian
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)Pickthall, Colin
Plaskitt, JamesStringer, Graham
Pollard, KerryStunell, Andrew
Pope, GregSutcliffe, Gerry
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Prosser, Gwyn(Dewsbury)
Purchase, KenTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Radice, GilesTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Rapson, SydTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Raynsford, NickThomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)Timms, Stephen
Rendel, DavidTipping, Paddy
Rooney, TerryTodd, Mark
Rowlands, TedTonge, Dr Jenny
Roy, FrankTouhig, Don
Ruddock, Ms JoanTrickett, Jon
Russell, Bob (Colchester)Truswell, Paul
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Ryan, Ms JoanTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Sanders, AdrianTyler, Paul
Savidge, MalcolmWallace, James
Sedgemore, BrianWalley, Ms Joan
Shaw, JonathanWareing, Robert N
Sheerman, BarryWatts, David
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Webb, Steve
Skinner, DennisWhite, Brian
Smith, Angela (Basildon)Whitehead, Dr Alan
Smith, Miss GeraldineWicks, Malcolm
(Morecambe & Lunesdale)Willis, Phil
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)Wills, Michael
Smith, John (Glamorgan)Winnick, David
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)Wise, Audrey
Soley, CliveWoolas, Phil
Spellar, JohnWray, James
Squire, Ms RachelWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Starkey, Dr PhyllisWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Steinberg, Gerry
Stevenson, GeorgeTellers for the Noes:
Stoate, Dr HowardJanet Anderson and Mr. Robert Ainsworth.
Stott, Roger

Question accordingly negatived.