As an Amendment to Commons Amendment No. 136

– in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 18 July 2000.

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Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative 4:15, 18 July 2000

rose to move:

As an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their amendment, at the end to insert "and do propose the following amendment in lieu of the words so left out of the Bill"--.


(" . At the end of section 105(8) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 there shall be inserted "and that period shall be not less than 10 years".")

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 136A. In the course of presenting her arguments for and against the amendments on the Marshalled List, the noble Baroness accused this side of the House of pitting grammar schools against comprehensive schools. If anybody is guilty of that it is the noble Baroness and her noble friends opposite. The Government's policy does precisely that. One has only to visit Trafford, Barnet and parts of Kent to see just how vociferous and active is the Labour Party in that work.

The noble Baroness also made no mention of what we believe to be the Secretary of State's plans to modify the petitioning and balloting arrangements in order to make it easier to close grammar schools. We understand that that matter is under active discussion within the department. It is not for me today to go over the arguments about the merits of grammar schools; we have debated those at length in this House. I concede defeat on the amendments passed by this House which went to another place. However, one matter that is worth considering--it is the kind of consideration that this House usually deals with sensitively--is that there should be an end to the upheaval, war of attrition and discomfort caused to schools by this kind of activity on an annual basis. We believe that the five-year moratorium, which in practice is only four years, should be set aside and the period of respite for schools should be 10 years.

For those who wish to see the demise of grammar schools, they will not go away; they will remain active even between one period and another. We are not talking about one generation of children who pass through the school during those five years. A child starting grammar school can expect twice during his time there to have his schooling disrupted, his teachers and head teachers distracted, his parents disturbed and politicking going on around him. It is only fair to give at least one generation of children a respite from such upheaval occurring a second time.

My honourable friend Graham Brady, when considering our amendment in another place, said that one of the saddest aspects of the current Parliament is that a government claiming to be more interested in standards than in structures took early action focused directly on the structures of education. They did so in relatively limited areas of the country but where, by and large, the system has been working well. If the Government were truly more interested in improving standards than in tinkering with structures, they should have left the remaining grammar schools alone two years ago when the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 was passed. He went on to say that if it is their true agenda today, they should warmly embrace the House of Lords Clause 98, which was wisely added to the Bill by this House. He said that in the present climate the House of Lords seemed to take more care of the interests of the electorate and behaved more like a democratically responsive body of Parliament than the House of Commons. I shall return to that theme during debates on later amendments.

The Government's blind prejudice against academic ability has never been more manifest than in their philosophical objection to academic selection. What, may I ask the Minister, is so evil about selecting children on the basis of ability, particularly bright children from poor homes?

Moved, That Amendment No. 136A, as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 136, be agreed to.--(Baroness Blatch.)

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, with incredulity. I do not doubt that she is genuine in her concern for the disruption and distress caused in schools which are undergoing ballots. I speak from personal experience of schools and can say that, coming from the representative of a government who introduced ballots on maintained status and had school after school experiencing considerable division and disruption all because of their ideological drive to force grant-maintained schools on a country which demonstrated in ballot after ballot--and more particularly by refusing to hold ballots--that it did not want such schools, the concern is hard for me to understand. I do not want to use unparliamentary language, but I find some of what has been said remarkable coming from a party which started the ballots.

We opposed the Government's proposal, which is now in the Act, to ballot on grammar schools. We thought that it was inappropriate and that it would be better left to local decision-making. We do not want to rehearse those arguments today, but if the Government are considering amending the ballot regulations to make them a little fairer and more workable, I suppose that we welcome it. However, I should welcome much more their reappraisal of the whole situation.

The Minister spoke eloquently, as always, against selection in education but perhaps I may correct her on one point. She referred to grammar schools versus comprehensive schools. That is wrong; it is grammar and secondary modern schools versus comprehensive schools. If you have grammar schools, by definition you must have secondary modern schools, whatever label or name you choose to give them. That is the proper comparison with comprehensive schools and when one makes it one can see that in the overwhelming majority of cases our comprehensive schools have been most successful.

We will not support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. However, I must again make clear our party's opposition to the Government's ballot proposals as enshrined in the School Standards and Framework Act.

Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative

My Lords, when it comes to grammar schools, the Government are in a mess. It is a tailor-made, self-imposed mess. Before the election, their only undertaking as regards education policy was to do something about the grammar schools. They were unspecific, but it was clear that many Labour Members believed that they would move to the abolition of grammar schools. Indeed, some Labour Members--notably the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, and others--have been totally consistent in their abhorrence of selection and their belief that comprehensive education is the only formula for the UK. The Government in whom he was a Cabinet Minister in the 1970s not only believed that but implemented it.

This Government do not quite believe that but it is difficult to know what they believe. They are in favour of selection sometimes and against it at other times. If they were totally opposed to selection, and if they believed that it was evil to select children on ability, they should have the courage of their convictions and introduce a Bill to abolish the remaining 164 grammar schools. But that is not what they have done.

Old Labour Members would have liked that because they did not believe in selection. Many of them continue in that belief. Therefore, the Government decided to create a series of fancy franchises around the country in order to pass the decision making down to selected members of the community. And they must be disappointed that the fancy franchises they have created have given them a raspberry! The only ballot has been in Ripon. In Trafford, Birmingham and Kent, parents or local activists tried to reach the target but were unable to do so. In Ripon, the only place where an election took place, there was a decisive result in favour of grammar schools.

No doubt the noble Baroness will have read the minute which came from the Prime Minister's hands in recent days. She will remember that he wrote that the Government are out of touch with the "gut instinct" of the British people. The gut instinct in Trafford, Birmingham and Kent is to keep the grammar schools, not to abolish them. The Government cannot even get 20 per cent of the electoral college, which is a fancy franchise, to say that they want to abolish the grammar schools. Therefore, in response to the minute the Minister should tell her leader that she recognises that that is the case and that where there has been an election, the gut instinct was clearly for the continuation of the grammar schools.

Perhaps I may also remind the Minister that after the result in Ripon the heads of the grammar and comprehensive schools there said, "Never again do we want to be put through that; not in five years and not in 10 years". I support the amendment tabled by my honourable friend, because 10 years is long enough to ensure that it will never happen but those heads did not want to go through it again because they did not want to waste their time.

I ask the Minister to reflect on the improvements which could have been made to existing comprehensive schools in Birmingham, Kent and Trafford if the energies of all the parents had been spent on improving the quality of those schools rather than fighting such an arid battle. Therefore, I believe that the Government should accept the fact that that ruse has not worked and should abandon it as quickly as possible. They should certainly agree to the amendment of my honourable friend.

Noble Lords:

Noble friend!

Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative

My noble friend--noble and honourable, I hope.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative

I shall use as many adjectives as your Lordships require, but she is a very good egg!

My point is that my noble friend's amendment would remove that particular dispute from controversy, and that is what we should seek. The last thing that our country's education system needs is a fight on old barren ground. The clear wish of people who expressed a view is that the remaining grammar schools should stay. On certain days the Government agree with that; on other days, they do not--and that is an imperfect lead to give to the education system of our country. Therefore, I very much hope that the House will support the amendment.

I must not sit down before I touch on the Liberal Democrats in relation to this matter. The Liberal Democrats nationally are against selection. That is clearly set out in their manifesto. With regard to the local option--the noble Lord, Lord Tope, knows more about the local option than anyone because he presides over a local authority--it is the local level that maintains grammar schools, believes that they are marvellous, campaigns for them, funds them, pays them and encourages them to grow and develop. Therefore, I believe that we should discount entirely the integrity of the Liberal Democrat Party in this matter--not only in this matter, but particularly in this matter--because it is one on which they say, "Don't do as I do; do as I say".

I hope that your Lordships will consider these to be the battles of yesteryear and agree that we should not continue them.

Photo of Lord Carlisle of Bucklow Lord Carlisle of Bucklow Conservative 4:30, 18 July 2000

My Lords, when the Minister introduced the amendment, she referred to the history of discussions about grammar schools over the past 25 years. As someone who had a part in that history, perhaps I may say that I notice and accept that on the face of it the Labour Party appears substantially to have changed its position. Perhaps I may remind her that in 1979 the purpose of the first Bill introduced by the incoming Conservative government was to restore to local education authorities the power to retain grammar schools. That short Bill, introduced on approximately the seventh day of the life of that government, was necessary because of the previous Bill that had been passed by the Labour government under the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, as their Secretary of State for Education. Their Bill required local education authorities to become comprehensive and to do away with grammar schools.

There is no doubt that at that stage parents were not asked for their views; the government dictated that grammar schools should disappear. Happily, having passed the 1979 Bill, we have retained 164 grammar schools in this country. I believe that they continue to be a valued part of our education system. They are popular with parents and with the people of the country as a whole.

In the past few days, we have heard a great deal about the Government's concern over the perception of their policies. The Minister told us today that one of the Government's policies is the drive for and pursuit of higher standards in education. It is hardly surprising if the public have a slightly different perception when the only two Acts to have been passed by the present Government in this regard abolished the assisted places scheme, which provided education opportunities for children in inner cities which otherwise they would not have had, and maintained their open opposition to grammar schools.

Although the Government say that it is for parents to decide, the Minister, like the Minister in the other place, made it clear that they are opposed to, and wish to see the end of, grammar schools. The only ballot that has taken place--in Ripon--showed clear support for grammar schools. The attempt to hold a ballot in Trafford did not even get off the ground because an insufficient number of people signed the petition to start a ballot; and the provisions in the 1998 Act only cause worry and fear to grammar schools and disruption when a ballot takes place.

I am sorry that the other place decided to reject the amendment that we passed in this House. However, I hope that the compromise moved by my noble friend today, proposing a moratorium of 10 years before any further ballot can take place, will be passed in an effort to show that the House supports those who want to see the continuation of grammar schools.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

My Lords, I speak as president of the Grammar Schools Association. I did not intend to speak in this debate but, as ever, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has provoked me to the Floor.

The noble Baroness will remember that she answered two Written Questions which I tabled relating to A and B grades at A-level gained by independent and grammar schools. She may remember that she answered that 25 per cent of the A and B grades were gained by independent schools and 13 per cent by grammar schools. Therefore, 42 per cent of the top two grades at A-level were gained by 10 per cent of children in independent and grammar schools.

Is that an indictment of the state education system? I do not know. However, in face of that, schools on the Continent have opted for flexibility. In Kent, which has grammar schools, other schools have specialised in technology and various other subjects. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, is wrong--he is an historical dinosaur--to say that the only alternative to grammar schools is secondary modern schools. He has only to look across the Channel or to Kent to see that a wide variety of schools can provide alternatives that satisfy children who are not necessarily academic. Believe me, I was good at writing essays but I have never earned as much money as a London plumber.

Therefore, I suggest to the Government that they should be more pragmatic, more tolerant and look more closely at the facts rather than attach themselves to a dogma which died with Harold Wilson.

Photo of Lord Mayhew of Twysden Lord Mayhew of Twysden Conservative

My Lords, I declare an interest as a board member of an organisation called Support Kent Schools. During the passage of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Government's position, as represented by the Minister, was that they were not hostile to grammar schools but they wanted the public to have an opportunity to decide the character of schooling in their areas. That stance seemed to me to be replicated today by the noble Baroness. She said that the Government do not support selection but want merely to return the decision to the public.

I, for one, must confess to having felt a certain scepticism during the passage of the earlier Bill because I believed it more likely that Ministers in this Government were the doctrinal heirs of Mr Anthony Crosland, whose objectives during his time in office were frequently cited in our debates, suitably edited.

Now we have an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate the sincerity of the position to which they aspired and which they avowed. As has been pointed out on a number of occasions this afternoon, we now know that the necessary threshold has not been achieved anywhere. The threshold was achieved in Ripon but that result has already been remarked upon. Nowhere else--in Trafford or Kent--has even the threshold for a ballot been achieved.

Therefore, the pressure to dispose of selection simply does not exist. In adopting the methods put forward by the Government--that is, their own threshold machinery--the people have spoken; or, to express it more accurately, the eloquence of the public has been decisive. It cannot be mistaken. Therefore, surely now is the time for the Government to say, "Very well, we accept that that is the case and we must now strike a balance between again taking the horse to water and avoiding the undoubted instability and damage that comes from instability to schools--not only selective schools but other, non-selective schools which would be affected by any change, to say nothing of the interests of parents and children".

I should like the Minister to answer two questions. First, does she accept that a period of uncertainty on this issue inevitably causes damage of the kind that has been mentioned today and which I need not repeat? Secondly, will she give an undertaking that this Government will not bring forward amendments to the thresholds which were so integral a part of the previous Bill and which have failed, I suggest, to produce the result that the Government wanted? I, for one, would be extremely grateful if in her reply an answer is given to those two questions.

I believe that my noble friend's amendment of a 10-year moratorium strikes the right balance. It is the minimum that can really be afforded schools, which have gone through that immensely disruptive process in the past year or so. It strikes the minimum balance of stability needed and the Government now have the opportunity to demonstrate that they respect the wishes of the people and are not truly motivated by hostility to selection.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, my incredulity is equal to that of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I shall try to express it in equally parliamentary terms. It is a debating point, but it is a valid one. The noble Lord spent a long time telling us that he is against ballots and then advised his friends to vote against an amendment to have fewer of them. There is probably no point in drawing that to the attention of his colleagues because they will do what they are told, but it is to be hoped that the rest of your Lordships will draw your own conclusions about the Liberal Democrats' position.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Minister of State (Education and Employment), Department for Education and Employment

My Lords, I find it quite amazing to hear two former Secretaries of State for Education who served various Conservative governments, under whom numbers of grammar schools were turned into comprehensive schools, make the speeches that they have just made. They criticise the Government for fighting the battles of yesteryear. It seems that it is they who are now fighting the battles of yesteryear, and perhaps battles that they wish they had fought a little harder when they were members of those governments.

However, the criticism made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is accepted. Of course, I should have referred to secondary modern schools too. When members of the Conservative Party are debating this subject, they never refer to the fact that where we have the selective system, as in Kent, with grammar schools we confine 75 per cent of pupils to secondary modern schools. They are labelled as failures at the age of 11, and it is made very difficult for them to escape from that failure. It would be more honest if from time to time members of the Conservative Party made it absolutely clear that that is what is being discussed.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, as a "good egg". I do not want to dispute that at all. But the claim that the Government are involved in blind prejudice against academic ability is outrageous. The Government are committed to raising the academic ability of all our children, right across our primary schools and right across our secondary schools. In fighting old battles, the Conservatives are becoming obsessed with 160-odd grammar schools. What a pity the Conservatives do not think about the needs of all our pupils in all our schools.

I do not want to get involved in another debate about selection, because, as I said in my introductory remarks and as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, rightly said, we have already had that debate several times.

I shall answer the two questions put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. He supports the continuation of not only grammar schools but also secondary modern schools in Kent. The noble and learned Lord asked whether I accepted that there would be a period of uncertainty when ballots take place and whether that would cause damage. I repeat what I said earlier, and what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. It was the noble and learned Lord's party which introduced ballots in the first instance. So I wonder whether he believes that there was any damage caused in that respect.

The noble and learned Lord also asked about whether the Government have any intention of amending the thresholds. The threshold is in primary legislation and the Secretary of State has said that he will not reduce it.

Photo of Lord Mayhew of Twysden Lord Mayhew of Twysden Conservative 4:45, 18 July 2000

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has inadvertently neglected to answer the first question. Will she take this opportunity to do that?

Does the noble Baroness regard "secondary modern" as some pejorative term which applies, for example, to Angley School in Kent, which operates in co-operation with Cranbrook School, at the other end of the town, and is sending its children to Oxford and Cambridge and to other universities from an increasingly successful sixth form?

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Minister of State (Education and Employment), Department for Education and Employment

My Lords, I thought I had answered the first point. Of course, whenever changes to admission arrangements are made, some disruption will be caused while they are carried out, but it is not believed that long-term damage is done. I reiterate what I said earlier: the Government believe that it was right to consult parents about the issue.

Regarding the point about secondary modern schools in Kent, I am sure there are a great many secondary modern schools in Kent doing the best that they possibly can in a situation which is not at all desirable.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, thinks that the Government are out of touch with public opinion. I think that he is profoundly out of touch with public opinion. When surveys of public opinion were undertaken when the 11-plus was still in place--it still is in Kent--the vast majority of people disliked it intensely and wanted to see it come to an end.

I set out my reasons earlier for rejecting the Opposition's proposals and I shall not repeat them all again. I urge noble Lords to support the Government's Amendment No. 136 and to restore the provisions for parental petitions and ballots about the future admission arrangements at grammar schools to the School Standards and Framework Act and to support the position achieved while the Bill was in another place. In so doing, I hope that noble Lords will also be persuaded by my arguments against the Opposition's Amendment No. 136A, which would impose a moratorium of 10 years on further balloting instead of the present five years. To support the Government's amendment and to resist the Opposition's amendment is to support the balance the Government have been keen to strike between ensuring that parents have opportunities to decide the future of admissions to grammar schools and ensuring that schools have the stability between ballots which they need.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, it was the Prime Minister and not the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, who said that the Labour Government were out of touch, and therefore my noble friend was right to refer that. The Prime Minister himself said it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said rather patronisingly that some secondary moderns were doing their best in the best possible circumstances. Many secondary moderns are doing exceptionally well indeed, and so are many other schools, many comprehensives, and many high schools. I refute very strongly the accusation that somehow or other my colleagues and I are not concerned with all children in all schools. It was our government who introduced city technology colleges. It was our government who introduced specialist schools. It was our government who introduced bilateral schools and grant-maintained schools. It was our government who supported grammar schools and the best comprehensive schools, high schools, secondary modern schools, Church schools and special needs schools. That system provides choice and diversity and an education that meets the needs of all children, including children of high academic ability.

Why is there a vendetta against 164 schools out of 4,000? We all know why: it is the Government's obsession with academic brilliance and pandering to every other form of selection. Why is it right to select on the basis on an aptitude for science and technology, or art, or music, or sport, and not for a child who is bright and very able academically?

I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, did ask for it. First, he referred to the ballots which we introduced for grant-maintained schools. There is a very important distinction in that regard. The parents, the teachers and staff in each school which became grant maintained made that decision. This is a very different form of attrition.

The parents of children in many of those grammar schools are denied a vote at all about the future of the schools. In the case of grant-maintained schools, they were not voting about whether the school survived as a school; they were voting about a change of management in the school This is about whether the school should survive at all as a school. Many of the schools will cease to exist as grammar schools. I am saying to the noble Baroness that if there is a successful vote in those areas--in other words, to change the admissions arrangements--those schools cease to exist as grammar schools. They are no longer grammar schools.

That was not the position in relation to grant-maintained schools. They continued to be the schools that they were and the ballot was on a change of management and the fact that there would be more control over the running of the school.

Once again, we have witnessed the two faces of the Liberal Democrat Party. When we were discussing the Bill originally, we all remember that a Front Bench Liberal Democrat spokesman said quite openly in this Chamber, "What we say nationally is one thing; what we do on the ground is another". I have no respect for such a policy.

Let there be no mistake that we shall abandon those petition and balloting arrangements when we return to office. A vote for my amendment will be a vote for a widening of choice and diversity in education. A vote against my amendment will impact most strongly on bright children from low income families.

This Government prove beyond doubt that the politics of envy and the class war are alive and well. I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 136A), as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 136, shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 206; Not-Contents, 237.

Division number 1

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.