New Clause 4 — Selection by aptitude

Orders of the Day — Education Bill — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 10:30 pm on 6 February 2002.

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'(1) The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c. 59) is amended as follows.

(2) Clause 99 (General restriction on selection by ability or aptitude) is amended by leaving out subsection (4)(b).

(3) Clause 102 (Permitted Selection: aptitude for particular subjects.) shall cease to have effect.'.—[Mr. Willis.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 8—Grammar schools: Access to parental ballots and information

'(1) The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c. 59) is amended as follows—

(2) In section 105(2) procedure for deciding whether grammar schools should retain selective admission arrangements, paragraphs (b) and (c) are omitted.

(3) Section 106(1) (eligibility of parents to request or vote in a ballot) is amended by inserting "primary" before "schools".

(4) In section 106 subsection (2) is omitted.

(5) Section 106(3)(a) (proportion of parents required to request a ballot) is amended by leaving out "20" and inserting "5".

(6) Section 106(3) paragraph (b) is omitted.

(7) Section 107(3) (information provision by the authority or body on intentions or proposals following a successful petition) is amended by leaving out subsection (c) and inserting—

"(c) a statement by the authority or body on intentions or proposals for a non–selective education system which may include information on options, costs and planning assumptions in the event of such a result.".'.

New clause 9—Permitted selection: aptitude for particular subjects

'The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 is amended by omitting section 102.'.

New clause 12—Restrictions relating to petitions and ballots

'After section 106 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 there is inserted—

"106A Restrictions relating to petitions and ballots

Where a petition of parents has been initiated, or a ballot held, and no change to admissions arrangements has been agreed, no further ballot may take place within a period of six years from the initiation of the petition.".'.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

New clause 4 is simple and, if the Minister readily agrees to it, we will not need to divide the House. However, Mr. Brady might want to press new clause 12 to a vote.

Before the Labour party came to power in 1997, it made a strong commitment to the British people in the run-up to the general election. Several hon. Members, including the Prime Minister and the then shadow Education Secretary, Mr. Blunkett, stated that selection would not be extended under a Labour Government. We expected them to move swiftly and directly to end selection in our schools.

Nothing happened in 1997, but in 1998 the Government introduced their first major education Bill, which became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. We eagerly went through that to identify the clauses that would end selection in schools. There was, however, no mention of selection other than the introduction of ballots for grammar schools. The Conservatives opposed that because they thought that it was a tortuous way of getting rid of grammar schools. My hon. Friend Mr. Foster and I opposed ballots because we thought that they would be a bureaucratic nightmare and that no one would meet the conditions. Indeed, there has been only one ballot, for Ripon grammar school, which was so heavily rigged—

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Let me explain why. Half the people who could vote had their children in private schools where they were being groomed for the 11-plus so that they could get into the grammar school. All the kids who went to the state local schools could not get in because of the kids from the private schools. The ballot was lost and a significant amount of money was wasted. Those were the rules of engagement.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman knows that we oppose new clause 4. As I want to press new clause 12 to a vote, perhaps we can find some common ground. Does he agree that the ballot arrangements caused the remaining grammar schools immense uncertainty? In areas such as Trafford, which I represent, or Kent, where my hon. Friend Mr. Green has his constituency, attempts have been made to close those schools. That happened last year and it is happening again. Although there is not the requisite number to trigger a ballot, the process causes schools enormous uncertainty, which is an intolerable burden. I hope that when we press for a vote on new clause 12, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will support us in relieving schools of that burden.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman so much co-operation, but I am sure that he will feel able to support us when we call for a vote on new clause 4, in which case we will consider carefully what he said.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Perhaps that degree of co-operation is not fully established.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet 10:45, 6 February 2002

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the best way to draw a line under the matter would be to change the regulations, so that in places such as Kent we can have the ballot, and once and for all put an end to this mess and get rid of the corrosive evil that is selective education?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Of course when the hon. Gentleman fought a general election for the first time in 1997 he expected a Labour Government to do exactly that. Indeed, our party still believes that democratically elected local authorities—which I do not believe the Government intend yet to abolish, although they may do so before the end of this Parliament—should be able to make such decisions. Sadly, of course, that is not so. Until we start to return power and democracy to local people through local government, we will not be able to meet those aspirations.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am sorry, but I will not give way again because I know that the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale, West and for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) want to speak.

I apologise for digressing a little. I do not want to table a new clause that would get rid of grammar schools. All I want to get rid of with new clause 4 is what the Government introduced in the School Standards and Framework Act.

We were promised no selection, but instead of dealing with grammar schools, the Government said that they wanted to introduce more selection, not by ability but by aptitude. The debate was tortuous. The then Minister for Schools Standards tried to persuade the Committee and the House that there was a significant difference between the two, but we were never able to see it. Someone thought that it was better to have the ability to fly a plane than the aptitude for doing so, but I could not work out the difference if it crashed. In reality, the Government wanted to allow 10 per cent. of students in specialist schools—that was their new idea—to be selected by aptitude.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has returned to her place.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I know that it is just for me.

The right hon. Lady has often said, "The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough doth protest too much because most schools have not used the 10 per cent. aptitude provision but ignored it, and that proves the case." I say to her that we have a golden opportunity. Schools do not want the aptitude provision. Only 7 per cent. of schools have used it, and most of them were selecting before. As we have heard—I will not reopen the debate—schools are selecting by faith.

The new clause would simply get rid of the whole business of selecting by aptitude. The right hon. Lady knows that such selection is nonsense, as does the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. If the Government are to introduce selection, they should at least have the guts to make it by ability. If not, let us get rid of the nonsense. I ask the House to support new clause 4.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

I am delighted to have the opportunity, however brief, to speak to new clause 12. Mr. Willis has made clear his opposition to the remaining grammar schools. At least he has always been both clear and consistent in that. The Government have been clear in their opposition to the remaining grammar schools but not always consistent. They seem to move to and fro on the issue.

We have not only had the celebrated instance to which the hon. Gentleman referred of the then shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Mr. Blunkett, saying, "Read my lips: no selection by exam or interview." The Government appear to have reneged on that as they have developed a belief that selection by ability or aptitude in some circumstances can be a route to raising standards in schools.

The latest twist and turn in the process came just before Christmas when, on 7 December, in an article on the front page of The Times under the headline "Labour ends its 30-year war against grammars", we read:

"Labour will declare an historic truce with grammar schools today after two generations spent trying to abolish selective education."

The article continues:

"Less than four years after the Government gave parents the power to abolish the remaining grammar schools and ruled out the creation of any more, Stephen Timms, the School Standards Minister, will trumpet plans to harness their expertise. Allocating £500,000 to link schools in 28 areas of England, Mr. Timms will say: 'The time of a "one-size-fits-all" approach to secondary education has long gone. We now have a mature understanding of the benefits of a diverse system, tailored to meet the needs of every pupil in every town.'"

We welcomed that enormously. The article also says:

"Tony Blair has consistently stated his opposition to selection. He once told head teachers that he knew people had been scarred for life by rejection at the age of 11"— an obvious reference to his Deputy. There was some concern in the article, but its gist was welcome: the Government, after being ideologically hostile to the remaining grammar schools, had come around to accepting that they are excellent schools which provide opportunity for children in the communities that they serve.

I am proud to represent one of those communities. I am delighted that one of the partnerships between grammar schools and other parts of the maintained sector in which the Government have recently invested is based partly in my constituency. Altrincham grammar school for girls, the sister school of the school which I attended, is, as the Secretary of State will know, in partnership with her old school, the nearby Whalley Range high school. That is a welcome initiative. If Members will forgive a brief indulgence, I shall point out that the right hon. Lady frequently visits her old school to make announcements and promote Government policy, so perhaps I can ask her to join me on a visit to its partner, Altrincham grammar school for girls. Together we could explore the great advantages of grammar schools in spreading best practice to other parts of the maintained sector.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

The hon. Gentleman has talked about diversity. What sort of diversity is there in my constituency, where we have no comprehensives? We have the two sides of the selective coin—grammar schools and secondary moderns. Where is the choice for my constituents?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

We support Government policy in that area. I hope that, as has been the case in my constituency, the hon. Gentleman's constituency increasingly has a blend of grammar schools, specialist schools and others; I hope that there would be few schools which offered no choice or advantages to his constituents. We welcome the increasing diversity of schools.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

Would my hon. Friend explain to Government Members that grammar schools select children from all walks of life and all backgrounds, and are genuinely socially inclusive? Comprehensive schools tend to use the system of selection by estate agent, which cannot be fair to pupils in his constituency and elsewhere.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend is right, and I am acutely aware of the problem. If my old school, Altrincham grammar school for boys, had been a comprehensive when I was a boy, I would not have fallen within its catchment area; eligibility would have been limited to the most affluent parts of my constituency.

I do not wish to detain the House on parochial matters. The vital fact is that we, like the Government, recognise the excellent work that grammar schools are doing.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Does my hon. Friend realise that even if he wished to detain the House, he cannot do so for more than seven minutes, so he may not succeed in developing his argument and will not touch on any other issue? Does he not agree that that is a total disregard of Parliament and what it ought to stand for?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

I agree. If my hon. Friend had had the misfortune to witness the Government's mismanagement of the Committee stage, he would be even more outraged than he rightly is now.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

I shall give way in a moment; I fear that the hon. Gentleman may be a convert to the cause of grammar schools, as the Government appear to be. We, like the Government, recognise the important job that grammar schools in the maintained sector do so well. The latest research published a few months ago by the National Foundation for Educational Research demonstrated the great strengths of the grammar schools in achieving better performance up to GCSE level for middle-ability children and up to key stage 3. I know that Mr. Chaytor recognises that.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Acknowledging that the benefits of a mature understanding of diversity have been conferred upon us all, does the hon. Gentleman accept, with reference to his earlier point about insecurity related to selective systems, that he should support my new clause 8, which would make it easier for a ballot to take place, whereby the issue could be settled for a number of years? As long as it is more difficult for a ballot to take place, the axe is always hanging over the school. It would help his cause and provide stability and security if the ballot could take place and the issue could be settled.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as he leads me to the central point of new clause 12, which involves stability and how best we can remove the threat that hangs over the remaining grammar schools—a threat that can arise every year. Even when there is no real will in a community to dispose of the grammar schools, it is possible for a small group of parents, frequently politically motivated, to initiate a petition. As soon as that happens, the schools are under threat. An enormous amount of effort is diverted from the educational priorities of the schools. The time of staff, governors and parents and fund-raising efforts are taken up not with helping the school but with fighting misguided attempts to abolish it.

That is why new clause 12 seeks to provide that once a petition has been initiated, or a ballot has been initiated or taken place, there will be a period of six years during which no further petition can be initiated. That is vital for thousands of children who attend grammar schools. It is essential that they have a period of grace during which their education can proceed without their school being faced with uncertainty and threatened with closure. The importance of the six-year period is that if a child starts at a grammar school in a year in which a threat is faced by the school, he can proceed through the remaining six years of what is likely to be a seven-year period at the school, without further threats to the school. New clause 12 provides the stability that the hon. Member for Bury, North described and I hope that he will support it.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman and I have very little time. I cannot give way now.

The new clause would protect our existing grammar schools from repeated threats of closure, giving them stability and allowing them to thrive without being under constant threat. It would not do away with the ballot process, but it would improve life for grammar schools and the children whom they serve. That is why I hope that we will have an opportunity to press new clause 12 to a Division. This is a matter of the utmost importance to many thousands of people outside the House, and it will be of great concern to them if the House does not have an opportunity to divide on such an important matter.

Sadly, as a result of the Government's intransigence and incompetence, we have not had the opportunity properly to debate the new clauses and amendments relating to selection by aptitude and ability. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends and hon. Members on the Liberal Benches to support the new clause. I hope that the Government will take advantage of the opportunity to make real what they claim is the end of their hostility to the remaining grammar schools, and prove that they recognise the value of our grammar schools by giving them a chance to flourish and grow as they should be able to do.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

The arguments of Mr. Brady depend absolutely on the implementation of new clause 8, which I tabled. Unless a ballot takes place, there will be no point in specifying that six years must—

It being Eleven o'clock, Mr. Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

The House divided: Ayes 62, Noes 420.

Division number 159 Education Bill — Abolish selection by aptitude in state schools — rejected

Aye: 61 MPs

No: 419 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Absent: 173 MPs

Abstained: 1 MP

Absent: A-Z by last name

Abstained: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. No doubt you are now considering whether we have time to put new clause 20 to a vote. Would it be in order for me to ask you, when making that consideration, to take into account the fact that it would have the support of three of the parties represented in this Parliament? The new clause relates only to Wales. Thirty-two of the clauses in the Bill relate only to Wales, and 31 relate only to England. We did not have the opportunity to debate the matters relating to Wales in Standing Committee because there was not one Welsh Opposition Member on the Committee. Will you take that into consideration when deciding whether we have time to vote on new clause 20?

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

Any question of a vote on new clause 20 would arise only after we have dealt with new clause 12. I am afraid that I cannot offer the hon. Gentleman any succour.

Mr. Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.