Selective Schools (Transitional Arrangements)

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 16th April 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North 3:32 pm, 16th April 2002

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish that a maximum of five per cent. of pupils can be selected, by aptitude or ability, for admission to any state secondary school;
to specify the period of time in which, and the means by which, those schools currently exceeding this percentage will be required to reduce their selective intake to five per cent.;
to specify the criteria for such selection and the means by which schools should conduct assessments;
and for connected purposes.

My Bill proposes a change—an improvement—to the current policy on selection that will have widespread support among the overwhelming majority of parents throughout the country. Of course, I do not make my recommendations lightly—I am seeking to improve policy. I call in my support what the head of the No. 10 policy unit said in a recent speech. I quote from the transcript:

"It was sometimes said that third-way politics meant that the difference between left and right had ceased to exist. This was absolutely not the case; yet nor was the third way exclusive of new and as yet unformulated strategies. Other ways—a fourth way, even a fifth way—could well be invented."

Therefore, my Bill offers the fourth way to deal with the contentious and divisive issue of selective admissions policies in secondary education.

First, it is important to recognise that three current forms of permitted selection to state secondary schools are of most concern: selection by religious affiliation, selection by aptitude and selection by ability. As the question of religious affiliation in faith schools has been widely debated in recent weeks, my Bill deals purely with selection by aptitude and by ability.

In respect of ability, there are currently more than 160 selective schools in England, spread across more than 30 local authorities. Although those local authorities with wholly selective policies are largely, although not entirely, concentrated in the south-east of England, almost one quarter of all English local education authorities are still affected by selection to a greater or lesser degree. It is also important to remember that, in addition to the vast majority of English local education authorities, both Scotland and Wales have rejected selection. It is significant that the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently considering the recommendation of the Burns report to end selection in Northern Ireland.

In respect of selection by aptitude, under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, a school which considers itself to have a specialism is entitled to select pupils on the basis of aptitude up to a maximum of 10 per cent. of the intake for a given year. Subsequently, the programme of specialist schools has been significantly developed to the point at which the Government now propose that half of all schools should be designated as specialist schools. However, only a small minority of those schools have chosen to exercise the option to select.

The concerns about selection have been debated for many years and can be summarised as follows. In respect of selection by ability, for every one grammar school there must be, by definition, three secondary modern schools to take those pupils who have failed the 11-plus examination. It is no coincidence that those local authorities with wholly selective admissions policies tend to have greater numbers of schools in serious difficulties and poorer overall levels of performance than equivalent local authorities with comprehensive systems. It is also significant that the most recent research on selective systems by both the university of York and the National Foundation for Educational Research indicates that the most able pupils performed at least as well, if not better, in comprehensive schools as in selective schools. In those local authorities with partially selective systems, the price of selection is paid by those schools that, although notionally comprehensive, are so heavily creamed by selection that they can never hope to be in a position to attract the critical mass of highly motivated pupils that is necessary to raise performance levels across the school or to compete on a level playing field with schools that have a genuinely comprehensive intake.

In addition, concerns about the impact of selection by ability focus on the very possibility of being able to identify ability accurately at the age of 11. In the House alone, there are many individuals of high ability who slipped through the 11-plus net and whose talent was only revealed many years later. Across the country, there are millions of such people. That represents a waste of talent on a massive scale that the nation can no longer afford.

In respect of selection by aptitude, similar concerns arise. How many parents, on looking back at their children's development, could have accurately predicted their aptitudes and interests at the age of 11? How many teachers can assess such aptitudes accurately? The main examining boards do not recognise any objective tests for aptitude. It has been said that the distinction between aptitude and ability is that aptitude is seen as a measure of potential, but the question must be asked: what is the nature of that potential? Is it potential ability or potential something else? The concern is that selection by aptitude could be exploited as a means of selection by ability by the back door. The fact that, to date, few schools have chosen to select by aptitude suggests that the majority are well aware of the difficulties of both definition and assessment.

The central issue for any Government committed to increasing equality of opportunity and reducing social exclusion should therefore be the impact of educational selection at 11 on these twin objectives: how we can best develop equality of status for all our schools while maintaining diversity of ethos and continuing to drive up standards and raise performance levels for all our children? This is where my Bill can assist. It proposes a maximum of 5 per cent. of pupils who can be selected and suggests a transitional period of three years in which the reduction to that figure can take place. However, the precise threshold for selection and the time scale of the transition are clearly matters of detail that are subject to negotiation.

While gradually reducing—but not abolishing—selection by ability and aptitude, the Bill will gradually reduce differentials of status between schools because all schools would become more comprehensive in their intake. As few specialist schools have chosen to select by aptitude, the gradual reduction from 10 to 5 per cent. should cause little difficulty. Some grammar schools claim that their examination performance indicates a superior level of education and the reduction would enable us to test that hypothesis.

The gradual redistribution of pupils would ensure that all schools start to acquire the critical mass of able and motivated pupils that is so necessary. The process would reduce the extent to which allocation to a school determines a child's progress and life chances. It would significantly enhance equality of educational opportunity and reduce levels of social exclusion as the educational apartheid of the English system is gradually dismantled.

The first way of dealing with selection was to have a grammar school in every town. The second was to try to abolish every grammar school in the country. The third way has been to introduce the concept of selection by aptitude and to establish a system of parental ballots, but that is unworkable. My Bill proposes the fourth way. It recognises that the remarkable success of British primary schools has been due entirely to comprehensive education; that the startling increase in the proportion of young people going to university has been largely the result of the extension of comprehensive education; that the significant improvements in GCSE results in recent years have been achieved largely by comprehensive schools; and that many parts of England retain a highly divisive system of secondary education that works against equality of opportunity, reinforces social exclusion and constrains levels of achievement.

The Bill proposes a gradual transition to a new 5 per cent. maximum on selection by ability or aptitude; it proposes a period of three years during which the transition should take place; it would ensure minimum disruption to pupils, staff and their schools; it would require greater transparency in the mechanisms of selection; and it would bring about the most radical extension of educational opportunity that this country has seen for a generation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell 3:42 pm, 16th April 2002

I oppose what I believe is an ill-thought-out and damaging proposal. I fear that it will do nothing to raise educational standards in this country, and I very much hope that the House will join me in opposing the motion to introduce a Bill that would reduce the threshold for selection in our schools.

The Bill is not simply an attack on grammar schools; it is an attack on many state schools across the country. It is an attack on those state schools that select, for local reasons, a small proportion of their intake—currently, they are allowed to select up to 10 or 15 per cent. of that intake. The Bill is also an attack on state schools that are building up specialisations that can help them to achieve excellence in their chosen field, or it is an attack on schools that have already successfully built up such a specialisation. For example, city technology colleges have done much to improve technological skills in recent years.

The Bill has been proposed by a Labour Member, but it flies in the face of the Education Bill and the principles that lie behind it that have taken up so much parliamentary time in the past few months. This Bill goes against the powers to innovate that are set out in the Education Bill and against the city academies that will be set up under it. How can those schools find the children whom they need to achieve excellence in their areas of specialism if they have no ability to select by aptitude? How can a technology college or an arts college achieve excellence if it cannot give places to the pupils with particular skills in technology or the arts?

I know that Mr. Chaytor is a long-standing and principled opponent of grammar schools. I understand that and accept his point of view, but I think that he is wrong. I suspect that, ultimately, opposition to grammar schools lies at the heart of the Bill. I admire his determination, but disagree fundamentally with his objective. He misses the point that opponents of grammar schools so often miss—selection still exists in every part of this country, but in too many places it is selection by estate agent, not by skill. In today's Britain the chances are that, if someone is born on the wrong side of town, they will end up in a school that is less good than if they had been born on the right side.

I went to a grammar school and I had friends from all walks of life. Grammar schools in many great towns in the north of England, such as Bury, were built as centres of educational excellence. They attracted pupils from all areas—the deprived as well as the good. They provided a way out of deprived areas for many of their pupils, and they took pupils regardless of background. In my view, it is tragic that some of those great schools—such as Manchester grammar school—are no longer a part of our state education system.

The difficulty with the grammar school issue was that we tried to tackle the problems that undoubtedly existed by dumbing down our best schools, rather than by creating excellence in other schools, as the Germans did. Even now, the reality is that a selective school system can make a major contribution. Many London boroughs have a selective system, but the non-selective schools still do better than their peers in nearby comprehensive boroughs.

At the end of last year, the Office for Standards in Education highlighted the fact that, in its view, comprehensive schools do not know how to identify gifted and talented pupils, or to teach them properly. Recent research by the National Foundation for Educational Research, to which the hon. Member for Bury, North referred, reinforced the benefits that selective education can offer. It found that, for pupils of average and above average ability, grammar schools do a much better job than comprehensives. It rightly adds the caveat, which we need to bear in mind, that

"selective LEAs need to find ways of supporting those children who narrowly fail to achieve grammar school places."

We certainly need to discuss how to ensure that pupils do not miss out once and for all at the age of 11. However, dealing with that issue correctly does not mean that we have to throw the baby out with the bath water and get rid of grammar schools altogether.

The conclusion of the NFER's research is absolutely clear:

"Comprehensive authorities may wish to consider whether it is somehow possible to replicate the 'grammar school effect' in a . . . different context."

That wholehearted endorsement from an independent and highly respected research body shows that grammar schools offer something that the comprehensive system too often fails to deliver. We will not sort out the problems in our education system by chopping the legs off grammar schools, instead of investing in other schools to ensure that they can deliver the same educational benefits as grammar schools.

If we are to deal with this country's education problems, the last thing we should do is once again tackle the issue of selection. It is the wrong issue at the wrong moment. It is true that big problems exist in our education system. Any head teacher will mention over-regulation and the endless initiatives and reforms that they face. Why on earth should we choose to impose on head teachers already overburdened with reform yet another change? They want less change, not more. They want a period of stability to get to grips with the task already in hand, not a new set of responsibilities.

As a result of Government changes associated with the introduction of the Learning and Skills Council, a school in my constituency has a £50,000 funding shortfall for its sixth form. In the next few weeks, it faces the prospect of making a teacher redundant to meet that gap, unless the funds can be found by the LEA or the Government. That school selects 15 per cent. of its intake for local, strategic reasons. The last thing on earth that its head teacher needs is to be confronted with the task of reshaping her admissions processes and reorganising the way the school admits pupils, rather than getting to grips with the real problems on her doorstep.

On teacher shortages, many teachers are leaving the profession not because selection exists, but because—as one local head teacher said—they want to get out and get a life. A recent report, produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the Government, shows that they are overburdened by a work load that causes many to work in excess of 50 hours a week. They are also leaving because the lack of discipline in our schools is getting out of hand, and they feel that the Government are not giving them the necessary support to deal with that issue.

The Bill flies in the face of the recent Education Bill. It would engender reforms that are unwanted by head teachers, who already have to deal with too much change. It would undermine some of our best schools while doing nothing to raise standards. It does not deserve to be introduced and I call on the House to oppose it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 163, Noes 112.

Division number 211 Selective Schools (Transitional Arrangements)

Aye: 154 MPs

No: 112 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Chaytor, Andrew Bennett, Valerie Davey, Mrs. Janet Dean, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Glenda Jackson, Lynne Jones, Dr. Stephen Ladyman, Mr. Tony Lloyd and Mr. Chris Mullin.