Grammar Schools (Ballots and Consultation)

– in the House of Commons at 12:36 pm on 18th November 2003.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire 12:36 pm, 18th November 2003

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 in order to remove the powers to hold grammar school ballots and to require the Secretary of State for Education and Skills before the end of the next Parliament to consult all maintained primary and secondary schools in each local education authority in England on the future arrangements for secondary school admissions within that authority;
and for connected purposes.

The grammar school system

"was a response to the needs of a vanished society which required a small educated class and a large number of manual workers. It is no longer the appropriate model for a world where most jobs require educated men and women."

Those are not my words, although I agree with every one, but those of our present Prime Minister a short time before the momentous victory in May 1997, which was famously founded on the policy tripod of education, education, education. In that brave new dawn, many hoped for an early end to selection, but here we are in the second half of a second Labour Government with a second large majority, with more children facing the 11-plus or selective entry tests for secondary education than did in 1997. In England, 36 of the 150 local education authorities still have selective systems, 15 of them wholly so. After 1997, the movers and shakers who shape our party's policies lost their nerve and abandoned our historical commitment to end selection by ability, which had been so memorably and visibly articulated through the lips of the present Home Secretary.

The idea of local ballots on the future of the remaining 164 grammar schools was introduced with a set of rules structured so that it is utterly impossible to win that ballot for change. Kafka would have swooned at the byzantine complexity of it all. It is that deeply flawed approach to consultation that my Bill seeks to set aside. That approach is shot through with anomalies, drawbacks and stumbling blocks, and it has led to only one ballot being held—in Ripon in 2000.

The practical difficulties and absurdities in the present arrangements inevitably prevent any parent, anywhere, ever again, from being given the chance to decide on the admission policies of their local grammar schools. The law must be changed. The view of every affected parent in the locality is key to the whole process, but must it be parents alone who can contribute to the debate and have a veto on change? Many educational writers argue that parental involvement in schools is too short term and too naturally entwined with the interests of their own children for them to see—in that classic Downing street phrase—the big picture. There is a strong argument that the whole community should vote, but my Bill does not tread that path. While parents are probably better placed than voters at large to know the effects of selection on children, the importance of the ultimate decision being theirs is more that it would be politically problematic for a future Government to override that decision locally or nationally, so I would expand the electorate only by including staff at local schools, whose opinions at present are either stifled or marginalised.

Mere tinkering with the regulations is wholly inadequate to extracting us from the quagmire that impedes progress. The many parents and schools seeking change are bogged down by apparent Government indifference to the outcome of local decisions. My party's commitment to lifelong learning and comprehensive education must mean the end of the division that segregation always brings for education and for society as a whole. Parental choice is actually denied where selection by examination persists, so the Government have to decide that they really want to see change. The educational and social imperatives that lead inevitably to that conclusion have to be spelled out by the Government in clear terms.

The vacuous vacillation that characterises the present arrangements is unsustainable. The status quo must go. The Government cannot just stand aside during a review, without giving any information, resources or commitments on future funding support for a reformed system, if that is indeed what parents and schools want to endorse.

My Bill's other provision would offer the Secretary of State an early opportunity to bring about historic and long-overdue reform in our nation's schools, for the enactment of the Bill would launch a large-scale, systematic and balanced debate on secondary school admission policies in each English local education authority. There would be no hiding place for the myths, distortions and half-truths that are routinely used to permit the continuance of those dodos in the educational aviary.

Some hon. Members and vested interests outside the House will fight to retain or extend secondary school selection by ability, or by its close relative, aptitude. They will doubtless cite past evidence from an imaginary golden era, when selection into grammar schools was said to offer the only escape from poverty for academic young people who would otherwise have had poorer educational opportunities, notwithstanding the fact that then, as now, grammar schools were predominantly socially selective as well—overwhelmingly peopled by children from better-off homes.

The dinosaur defenders would then fall back on the fallacious argument that standards in comprehensive education are sacrificed in an egalitarian levelling-down process. They say that the collective overall performance of schools is better in selective areas, but a proper value-added analysis and comparison of selective and non-selective LEAs shows clearly that community educational performance is actually depressed, not enhanced, in selective areas, so bang goes another stock myth.

Those who try to rationalise the irrational and promote the unpalatable will now be forced to dig deep into their reasons rag-bag. An old mantra from new Labour seeps into their thinking: people want choice and diversity, they will assert triumphantly. Sadly, in a selective system, only children able to pass the test on a wet Tuesday in February, and their parents, have more choice of school. Only when all schools in an area are comprehensive do families have access to a real and more meaningful choice.

So finally, in desperation, the republican guard around the final citadels of privilege will deploy their Exocet excuse. They will say, "What's wrong with selection? It happens in real life." But selection takes no account of the fact that children develop at different rates. It sets at naught the facts that there cannot be selection for the few without rejection for the many and that selection separates children socially at an early age, dividing families and friends. Is that not social exclusion for those who may see themselves as failures?

There is renewed pressure to end secondary selection—for example, the recent launch of a parliamentary campaign to modernise secondary school procedures, called "Comprehensive Future", the aims, values and philosophy of which are contained in early-day motion 1859. I hope and believe that my Bill is entirely consistent with those ideals. Last weekend, in the Caroline Benn memorial lecture, Professor Sally Tomlinson excoriated the present mania for diversity, which frustrates the comprehensive ideal.

Let me offer some final perspectives, all three from men educated in boys' grammar schools. First, Shakespeare was over-critical of selection when, in "Henry VI, Part 2", he wrote:

"Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school".

Secondly, Alastair Campbell was unjust in his facile phrase, "the bog-standard comprehensive". Finally, my modest measure triangulates a third way between my two fellow midlanders. There is solid evidence identifying the links between high levels of segregation in secondary schools and increasing levels of social exclusion, and the relationship between the difficult circumstances of many inner-city schools and the selective admissions strategies of neighbouring areas and adjacent boroughs. Ofsted regularly reports on the narrow social base of grammar schools in terms of free school meals, ethnic minorities and students with special needs.

The case for change is completely compelling. There is a mood for change out there; the means for change lie in here; the time for change is right now. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Let me start by welcoming two things that I heard during the contribution of David Taylor. First, the concept of scrapping provisions to hold ballots about the future of grammar schools is an excellent one. The sooner the House enacts such a measure, the better, because those provisions are proving hugely disruptive to schools. Last week, I spoke to the head of a grammar school who said, "The fact that we have this hanging over our heads year after year is enormously disruptive." It takes the leadership of a school away from what it should be doing—educating the pupils. I therefore think that it is a superb idea, and if the Bill were merely about removing that provision, I have no doubt that it would receive overwhelming support from the Opposition.

The second welcome thing about the hon. Gentleman's speech is that it shows clearly that old Labour is alive and well on the Labour Benches. This is an old Labour measure writ large. It is all about the old days of the Labour party and the desire to end the things that worked for this country. It is the living proof of why what was done in 18 years of Conservative Government was right, and why this country would be a worse place were the Government to fall back into the hands of Labour Members like the hon. Gentleman. This is yet another Labour attempt to undermine and destroy grammar schools, which are doing a first-rate job educating pupils in many parts of the country. I am surrounded by representatives of those areas, such as Buckinghamshire, Trafford, Bromley and Salisbury. Sadly, I am not surrounded by those who represent the excellent grammar schools in Kingston and Sutton, as they sit on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but I hope that in the near future those areas too will be represented by people who will sit on the Conservative Benches.

The reality is that grammar schools today provide an opportunity for all, and they have always done so. They do not, as our education system does all too frequently today, select by estate agent. Today, one's choice of school is determined by where one lives, and where one lives is all too often determined by the wealth of one's family and one's parents. If one happens to have been born on the wrong side of town, therefore, there is, in those areas where there is a grammar school, a chance to move into the best school in the area, selected by ability and intelligence, not by one's ability to pay or by the wealth of one's family. There are many places in this country where the great grammar schools provided that route to academic success for people from all walks of life. It is no accident that back in the 1960s a higher proportion of those who went to university came from working-class backgrounds than do today. That is no coincidence, because grammar schools provide a quality education and quality educational support for people from all walks of life.

I freely admit that the difficulty with grammar schools was related to transfer at age 11. Undoubtedly, there were those who suffered in an arbitrary system. The Labour alternative to deal with potential injustices in the system, however, is to dumb down the best schools. Rather than finding an alternative ladder for those who have the opportunity to achieve, Labour wants to take away that ladder from the best and most able in our society. That is madness.

Grammar schools provide an excellent academic environment, which affects not only those who attend them: they pull up the whole education system. It is no coincidence that even non-selective schools in the London boroughs of Kingston and Sutton do better than the comprehensive schools in their neighbouring boroughs. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire might say that that is not true, but I speak as a former opposition education spokesman in the London borough of Merton, which directly abuts Sutton and Kingston. What I said is absolutely true, because grammar schools contribute to an overall sense of excellence in their local education systems. They provide opportunities and encouragement, and they pull up standards. The idea that their removal would enhance educational success and performance is complete nonsense.

Most importantly, parents want grammar schools—the few that survive are hugely over-subscribed. Nonsuch high school for girls, which is on the fringe of my constituency, had its test for children who wished to attend it last week. It was heaving with applicants, showing that hundreds of parents want their children to attend grammar schools. Who are we to deprive them of that choice?

It is worth telling Labour Members that such schools are especially popular with pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire will remember the comments made by Trevor Phillips from the Commission for Racial Equality when the education debate was focused on entry to university for pupils from independent schools. He rightly pointed out that many families, especially Asian families, work extremely hard to send their children to independent schools because they want the best education for them. The same is true of grammar schools. Those who were involved in the test at Nonsuch school noted with a wry smile that one room was almost entirely filled with young girls with the surname Patel. Asian families are desperate, enthusiastic and determined to help their children into grammar schools so that they get the best education. Are we seriously to say to those families and families from other ethnic minority groups that their children should no longer have that opportunity? It would be wrong to do that.

Parents want grammar schools, and grammar schools deliver results of excellent quality. They pull up educational standards in their areas, and local education authorities that contain grammar schools are among the top-performing authorities in the country. Taking the opportunity to pursue academic excellence away from the children of people from all walks of life would be a total travesty and utterly inappropriate. It would once again do what the Labour party has delighted in doing over the years: destroying excellence in search of equality. That is the wrong way to go about things and this latest attack must not be allowed to succeed.

Sadly, I fear that we will return to the issue year after year as more old Labour Members try to send the wrong message to our grammar schools and those who teach in and lead them. They do not congratulate them on the excellent work that they do for their pupils or the opportunity that they provide for people from all walks of life, but say, "Actually, we think you're a bit too good, and we want to get rid of you." That is not the right way to make progress. We should champion excellence rather than dumbing it down. We must oppose the Bill.

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 132, Noes 105.

Division number 368 Grammar Schools (Ballots and Consultation)

Aye: 131 MPs

No: 104 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Abstained: 1 MP

Abstaineds: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by David Taylor, Mr. David Chaytor, Mr. Colin Challen, Tony Lloyd, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Mrs. Janet Dean, John Austin, John Cryer, Mr. Kelvin Hopkins, Mr. Roger Berry, Valerie Davey and Dr. Doug Naysmith.