[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:47 am on 8th November 2011.

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Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 11:47 am, 8th November 2011

Absolutely comfortable. I know as a parent that it is possible to identify at the age of 11 the children who will benefit from the more rigorous academic education that would come through a grammar school. However, I do not want children to be assessed in an environment in which they are not entirely comfortable at such a tender, early age. I urge the Minister to do his utmost to ensure that the process of selection is put on a more even footing, and that the system is better able to identify those with the ability and skills to benefit from a grammar school education, rather than those who perform particularly well in an exam on a given day in an unknown environment.

I am very supportive of what the Government are doing in increasing the role of grammar school education, and I look forward to many children benefiting from the changes that we will make in the years to come.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 11:57 am, 8th November 2011

Welcome to our proceedings, Mr Sheridan. We have had a very interesting debate, although I feel somewhat as though I am intruding on a private argument .

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I think that there is an argument, because I agree with the Minister that more grammar schools should not open, and I sense an undercurrent among the hon. Members who have spoken that they would like more to open. Perhaps if I am wrong about that, one of them will intervene and tell me so, but no one is standing up to speak, so we can take it that they do not agree with the Minister and that they have an argument with his policy—

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

In a minute. I will finish and let the hon. Lady intervene in a second, if she will contain her slinky hips, as she said in her speech earlier. I apologise—I should not have said that: I was simply quoting what she said about “Strictly Come Dancing.”

The Minister’s policy is not to open more grammar schools, and I understood from the speeches of other hon. Members that they want to open more, so perhaps the hon. Lady will clarify matters.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I think if the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I was saying, he would know that I gave full acknowledgment to the grammar schools that we have, and the fact that parents want to keep them. My speech was not about increasing them, or making alterations; I was saying that they are an important part of the education system, for which they must be acknowledged.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I accept that one hon. Member in the debate agrees with the Minister’s—and the Government’s—policy that more grammar schools should not be opened. The hon. Lady has made it clear that she agrees with that. I am looking around the Chamber to see whether other hon. Members want to tell us they agree with the Minister, but I do not see any.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Ah! I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening on me.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Conservative, Stevenage

I did not speak in the debate, but I understood my hon. Friends to be saying that they were very proud of the grammar schools in their areas, and that they wanted them to have the opportunity to expand. I believe that it is Government policy that all good schools should have the opportunity to expand.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I shall take it then, that all Government Members present do not wish to see more grammar schools opened across the country, which is the Government’s policy, although they support the Minister’s move to allow existing grammar schools to expand their numbers.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I would say that it would be a good idea to have grammar schools in areas in which they do not currently exist, but I would need to consult my electors before I decided which way to vote.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I take from that that the hon. Gentleman has some doubts about his own Government’s policy in not allowing more grammar schools to be built; that is the logical conclusion of his statement.

We now know that there is a mixed bag of views among Government Members about the matter. I agree with the Minister that we should not build more grammar schools, because selection at age 11, in my view, does not work and is wrong. I will expand on that in a moment.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

As the hon. Gentleman is speaking for the Opposition, if he believes that selection at age 11 is wrong, is he in favour of abolishing the 160 grammar schools?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Our policy on the matter is unchanged. It should be up to local parents, via the ballot mechanism described earlier, to decide whether they want to keep the grammar schools that are in their area. Our policy is unchanged from what it has been for many years.

I congratulate Gareth Johnson on securing the debate. When he opened the debate, he talked about a one-size-fits-all education. He told us his story of social mobility, which he attributed to his attendance at grammar school. He seemed to indicate that that kind of social mobility would not be possible without grammar schools, but I have to tell him that that is not correct.

I think I come from a background similar to the hon. Gentleman’s. My parents both left school at 14. My father worked in the steelworks and my mother was a dinner lady. I attended a comprehensive school and ended up here via various other institutions along the way, including teaching in a comprehensive school, which Eric Ollerenshaw also did. Social mobility is not dependent on attendance at a grammar school. There is conflicting evidence regarding the impact of grammar schools on social mobility, when looked at in the round, and the evidence that the hon. Member for Dartford cited was circumstantial rather than conclusive.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

No one here has suggested that it is impossible to have social mobility in non-selective schools. What we are saying is that there is a high degree of social mobility in grammar schools, which we are all proud of.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will clarify something for me. He says that he is against selection at 11, yet his party has a policy of continuing selection at 11 for the 164 remaining grammar schools. Does he want a policy with which he disagrees to remain?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

We have made our position clear. Although I am not in favour of selection, it is up to the parents in existing areas, via the ballot mechanism described by the hon. Gentleman, to decide whether they want to keep grammar schools. That has been our policy for many years, and the decision has always been taken in that way at a local level, previously by local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman said that no one is suggesting that social mobility is possible only through the grammar school route. Perhaps that is not what he wanted to suggest, but he made a remark—and I intervened on him, as the record in Hansard will show—that might have implied that that was what he believed. However, I accept the explanation that that is not the case. I will come on to the evidence that says that non-selective systems are more effective than selective ones.

Mr Wilson objected to the mechanism available to parents, should they seek to trigger a ballot, to change a selective system in their local area to a non-selective one. There was only one part of his argument that I did not understand. If the presence of grammar schools benefits all children and parents in an area, as many of his hon. Friends say is the case, why is he concerned about parents of children in the feeder schools to grammar schools having a vote on keeping a selective system? After all, according to him and his hon. Friends, all those parents would benefit massively from the gravitational pull of a selective school in their area.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Conservative, Reading East

My concern is not about parents of children in feeder schools voting—they should be able to do so—but about parents of children in grammar schools not being able to vote, and about the fact that ballots may be triggered by 10 anonymous people collecting a petition.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Leaving aside the issue of the trigger, which the hon. Gentleman raised with the Minister—I am sure that the Minister will respond to it—the logic of his argument suggests that he would want parents from all secondary schools in an area to be able to vote in a ballot, because they, too, would all benefit hugely, as described by his hon. Friends, from the presence of grammar schools that their children do not attend. By his own logic, all parents in an area should have a say in whether the local system should be selective or non-selective. However, the current system allows parents of children in feeder schools to vote in that way. If he is afraid that they will vote differently, clearly he is saying that they might not feel that their children are benefiting from having a selective school in their area. That was not the point that his hon. Friends were making.

Laura Sandys mentioned the high schools in her area, and spoke with passion and persuasiveness about the school system there. It was interesting to hear that non-grammar schools in the area are now referred to as high schools. Why do we never hear the term “secondary modern” any more? Why are non-grammar schools referred to as high schools, comprehensive schools, sometimes community schools or a variety of other appellations? It is for the reason pointed out by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood—the tripartite system that existed across the country condemned the vast majority of children to second-class schools. That is the truth and the reality of what the system was like.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is nodding, because he taught in that system and knows what secondary modern schools were like, as a whole, across the country. They provided a second-class and extremely poor education to the children who failed their 11-plus and were unable to attend other schools.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I have no experience of grammar schools or secondary modern schools on the Isle of Wight, because that has not happened to the schools there. Both grammar and secondary modern schools are doing well in places such as Thanet, the rest of Kent and Rugby, where grammar schools remain. They are good schools; it does not matter what one calls them.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I am not disputing the fact that there are many good schools within a selective system that are not grammar schools. I completely accept the point made by hon. Members about good schools in their local areas; they will know far better than I the quality of education offered in those schools. I am simply pointing out that when the system was scaled up right across the country in the 1950s and 1960s, the reason why the comprehensive movement came along was because of the failure of that system to cater for the needs of the vast majority of children.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood brought to the debate the benefit of his experience as a teacher in a London comprehensive school, and he made some valid points about the kind of social selection that can also take place in a comprehensive school. I taught in a comprehensive school for 10 years, and in my experience in schools, what counts is not whether a school is selective, but the quality of its leadership, the teachers in the school and the relationship created with parents, and the effective enforcement of good standards of behaviour in the classroom. Those are the sorts of issues that count in giving a good education to a child. That is perfectly possible—I witnessed it in many comprehensive schools. With the right leadership and the right quality of teaching, we can offer an educational experience for all children in a comprehensive school, including those who are academically gifted.

Photo of Eric Ollerenshaw Eric Ollerenshaw Conservative, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that, but I just wonder why his party still pursues the line of antagonising the remaining grammar schools and why it would prefer to see even them abolished at some point. On his party’s strictures, if the schools are good with good teachers and good results, should they not be allowed to continue?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I am not in the least antagonistic towards any school. As I have made clear, our policy is that the parents of children in the feeder schools to such schools should have the decision as to whether a system is selective or not. Let us be clear. When discussing grammar schools, it is not just a case of one school, but a selective system in an area. That is the consequence of having selection. It is quite right that parents should have a choice on that.

The hon. Member for Wirral West made the point that academic excellence is extremely important, and she referenced the very good schools in her area. I simply reiterate that academic excellence can be catered for in good, non-selective schools, whether they are academies, community schools or whatever.

On the point of social mobility and the make-up of existing grammar schools across the country, in a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend Bill Esterson in April this year, which can be found in the Library debate pack for this debate that I am sure hon. Members have seen, the Minister set out the number of year-7 pupils attending state-funded secondary schools overall, the number of those pupils attending grammar schools and then the numbers of pupils from a black ethnicity, those who receive free school meals and those who have a statement of special educational needs. It must be said that if one looks at the Minister’s statistics, it is not the case that grammar schools are purely academically selective; they are clearly socially selective as well.

Photo of Laura Sandys Laura Sandys Conservative, South Thanet

As I outlined in my contribution, different areas have different settlements when it comes to grammar schools and high schools, and that is important to understand. In an area with many grammar schools, there is a much greater cross-section of the population. When there are only three or four in a county, they are often in rural areas and people must drive to them. There is therefore a difference in the systems. We often put an umbrella around all grammar-school systems as if they were one, rather than look at the nuances that have developed in different areas with different outcomes.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

In her speech, the hon. Lady made the point that the grammar school in her area with a free school-meal intake was at exactly the average for the area, but that is an exception. It has to be an exception, and the statistics show that. In 2010, for example, 96,680 year-7 pupils attending state-funded secondary schools received free school meals out of a total number of 549,725. Out of 22,070 grammar school pupils, 610 received free school meals. The table goes on to give a percentage, and I must say that, using my comprehensive school maths, I think the figures are wrong in the Minister’s answer. I am sure that it was not his answer, but perhaps a mistake in translation when it went into the debate pack. The percentage calculations that I have done to check seem wrong, but what is clear from the figures when they are recalculated in a different way is that the ratio of state-school pupils to grammar-school pupils is about 25:1 and yet the ratio for free school meals is 158:1. There is clearly a huge amount of social selection going on, but I give those figures with the health warning that they may have been mistranslated along the way. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that—if not now, at a later date.

I will not go on much longer except to say that, as I stated earlier, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD statistician who compiles the figures for the programme for international student assessment, pointed out at a meeting that I attended that the best school systems in the world are non-selective. That is a clear conclusion of the OECD’s research.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 12:15 pm, 8th November 2011

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson on securing this important debate, which has been interesting and well argued. As ex-grammar school pupils, we share a familiarity with the high standards and positive experience that grammar schools engender. I also know that he continues to serve as a governor at Dartford grammar school for girls to ensure that those standards and values continue. As the Sutton Trust recently reported, more than eight in 10 of girls at that school are accepted at university. At 83%, it is around the same percentage as Maidstone grammar school, which I attended for one year, where 87% are accepted. That record is testament to the work of the school, its staff and the girls themselves. More than nine in 10 pupils go to university from Dartford grammar school—the boys school.

This debate comes at a time of almost unprecedented reform in our education system, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the work of the Department since May 2010. For too long, standards were allowed to slip in far too many schools. I know that Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s new chief inspector at Ofsted, will bring a resolute determination to reverse that trend and to return the focus of all schools towards excellence rather than excuses.

Grammar schools ensure that thousands of state-educated pupils move on to higher education and to the most competitive universities. Around 1,050 grammar school pupils were studying at Oxford and Cambridge in 2009. Some 98% of pupils in grammar schools achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, compared with 57.8% of pupils nationally. In 2009-10, some 95% of grammar schools pupils who were eligible for free school meals achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with about 31% nationally. The gap between the overall figure of 98% and the free school meals figure of some 95% of those in grammar schools achieving those good GCSE grades, which is about three percentage points, is absolutely critical. That contrasts sharply with the national figure.

In 2009, 55% overall achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, but for pupils who were eligible for free school meals the overall figure was just 31%. That gap of 24 percentage points has stubbornly remained over recent years. That is a disparity in outcome that we want to close or, at the very least, bring closer to the narrower gap that grammar schools have achieved for the simple reason that reducing the attainment gap between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds is one of the key objectives of the coalition Government. The question is how we can achieve that objective. How do we spread to the whole state school sector the grammar school ethos of high standards and ambition and of placing no limit on achievement?

No limit on achievement certainly seems to be the approach taken by Dartford grammar school. It is one of three such schools where, in 2010, more than 95% of pupils achieved the English baccalaureate’s combination of GCSEs. A further nine grammar schools scored above 90%, and 67.9% of grammar pupils achieved the E-bac nationally, compared with the overall national figure of 15.2%.

My hon. Friend Mr Wilson was right to pay tribute to Reading school, where 78% of the pupils achieved the E-bac, and to Kendrick school, where 72.8% achieved the E-bac.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

At Chislehurst and Sidcup grammar school, only 15% of pupils achieved the E-bac. Does the Minister regard that as a failure?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are a variety of standards in the list of grammar schools, and I believe that we will see a rise in that figure that he just quoted in the years ahead, just as we will see a rise in the proportion of pupils taking the E-bac right across the state sector as schools focus on achieving results in the E-bac.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East raised the issue of the grammar school ballot provisions, both in statute and in annex E to the funding agreement. We have discussed these issues on a number of occasions and the head teachers of the two schools that he mentioned—Reading school and Kendrick school—have made very clear representations. Throughout the country, there have been just 10 petitions since 1998 and only one went to a ballot. That proposal to abolish a grammar school, in Ripon, was defeated by a margin of two to one, but we are looking very seriously at the technical issues that my hon. Friend raised both today and in recent weeks.

My hon. Friend Eric Ollerenshaw paid tribute to Lancaster Girls’ grammar school, where 87.3% of the pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs, and to Lancaster Royal grammar school, where 81.9% of pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs. Those are excellent schools, and my hon. Friend is right that we should not be engaged in wars about such excellence.

My hon. Friend Esther McVey was right to extol the virtues of Calday Grange grammar school, where 87.3% of pupils achieved the E-bac, and the two Wirral grammar schools, where 77.3% of pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs.

My hon. Friend Mark Pawsey was right to pay tribute to Lawrence Sheriff school and Rugby high school. I listened very carefully to the important points that he made about the selection process, and local authorities should be advising parents about the options that are available to their children, particularly those who are from more disadvantaged backgrounds. I have also taken on board my hon. Friend’s important point about the environment in which the tests are taken.

My hon. Friend Laura Sandys raised the issue of the ethos and popularity of grammar schools. It is that formula that the Government are now seeking to replicate in every school in the country and for every pupil, irrespective of family background. In this country, we have many exceptional schools and teachers who work extremely hard towards achieving those goals—in fact, we have some of the very best schools and teachers in the world—but we also know that many state schools are struggling to work in what is at times an almost unworkable system of bureaucracy and central control. As a result, we have fallen back in the programme for international student assessment rankings, from fourth to 16th in science, from seventh to 25th in literacy and from eighth to 28th in maths. Our 15-year-olds are two years behind their peers in Shanghai in maths and a full year behind teenagers in Korea and Finland in reading.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

When the Minister cites those figures, will he cite the change in the number of countries participating in the PISA survey, will he say over what period he is quoting and will he also give the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study statistics for the same period?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Even if we take into account the increasing number of countries taking part in the PISA surveys, which took place in periodic years from 2000 onwards, the surveys still show this country declining. Also, the TIMSS survey is different, because it examines the curriculum of the countries in which children are tested, whereas the PISA survey looks at a common set of questions right across the different countries. The PISA survey is the one that we should be concerned about.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

It is only fair to put on record that, as the Minister knows, Andreas Schleicher, who compiles the PISA statistics, does not agree that there has been any absolute decline in performance in this country.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

However, Andreas Schleicher also says that there has been no increase in performance in this country, whereas other countries around the world are increasing performance. That is the problem facing our young people if we do not improve standards in our state schools, because those young people are now competing for jobs in a global market. It is no longer good enough just to look at the past, because we now have to compare our system with the best systems in the world.

Our education system has become one of the most stratified and unfair in the developed world. Since coming into office, we have been setting out our vision for reform on four broad themes: improving the quality of teaching and the respect for our work force in schools; greater autonomy for schools to plan and decide how and when improvements should take place; more intelligent and localised accountability; and reducing and simplifying the bureaucracy that frustrates and demoralises teachers. Those themes formed the basis of the White Paper that we published a year ago this month, “The Importance of Teaching”, and I believe that grammar schools can actively support improvement in each of those four areas.

First, we want to get the best graduates into teaching by funding the doubling of the Teach First programme during the course of this Parliament, and by expanding the Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders programmes, which provide superb professional development for the future leaders of some of our toughest and most challenging schools. We want grammar schools actively to share their experience of staff development with other schools, in both the initial training of staff and the provision of professional development. We have had more than 1,000 expressions of interest in establishing teaching schools and 300 applications have already been received, with grammar schools among the keenest to sponsor or support local schools to improve standards in their communities.

Secondly, our drive for greater autonomy has seen 111 of the 164 grammar schools that made those applications become academies, and many of them support other local schools. The vast majority of grammar schools participate in some form of partnership with other maintained schools or academies, be that an exchange of staff, working with students or supporting school leadership. Between them, the newly converted academies have agreed to support more than 700 other schools and to support fellow head teachers through the doubling of the national and local leaders of education programmes.

Thirdly, it is vital to ensure that improvement is driven not by the Government but by schools themselves, through effective accountability that focuses on raising standards. We are overhauling the inspections framework to focus on schools’ “core four” responsibilities—teaching, leadership, pupil attainment and pupil behaviour. The E-bac sets a high benchmark against which parents can hold schools to account, and it helps to narrow the gap between those from the poorest backgrounds and those from the wealthiest backgrounds.

The Russell group of universities has been unequivocal about the core GCSEs and A-levels that best equip students for the most competitive courses and the most competitive universities—English, maths, sciences, geography, history and modern or traditional languages. However, nine out of 10 pupils in state schools who are eligible for free school meals are not even entered for those E-bac subjects, and just 4% of those pupils achieve the E-bac. In 719 mainstream state schools, no pupils who are eligible for free school meals were entered for any single-award science GCSE; in 169 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for French; in 137 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for geography; and in 70 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for history. Academic subjects should not be the preserve of the few, but we need to free schools to achieve that aim.

Fourthly, therefore, we are dramatically reducing the bureaucracy that constricts achievement. In opposition, we counted the number of pages of guidance sent to schools in one 12-month period. They came to an incredible 6,000 pages—or six volumes of “War and Peace”, if people are inclined to consider it that way—and yet they contained little of substance that schools do not already know or share.

The most recent example of our efforts is the recently completed consultation on the school admissions and appeal codes. There were some 130 pages of densely worded text, with more than 650 mandatory requirements that were often repeated. The revised versions, which we published last Wednesday, total just over 60 pages and are minimal in their requirements, while preserving the important safeguards as well as introducing new requirements, such as priority in admissions for children adopted from care. As my hon. Friend Mr Syms said in his contribution, it is one of the most far-reaching changes that we can make if we give all schools, including grammar schools, a greater say over their own published admission number.

Currently that intake number is tightly managed by the local authority to ensure that any increases do not affect “the school down the road”. That kind of “rationing” of places only limits choice for parents and pushes cohort after cohort of children to less accomplished schools rather than giving good schools the freedom to expand and share their excellence.

Our approach is simply to let schools decide how many students they can offer a high quality of education within their own capital budget, while ensuring that they maintain standards or improve any underperformance. Why is that important? Quite simply, it is important because we want the number of places in all good schools to increase, to increase genuine choice for parents. Even marginal increases in some areas will lead to a positive cycle of increased standards. Critics who argue that that will create sink schools overlook the current admissions codes—

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

Order. We must now move on to the next debate. Before doing so, I ask colleagues who are leaving Westminster Hall to do so quickly and quietly.