HC Deb 28 February 1968 vol 759 cc1713-7

7.26 a.m.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 34, at end insert: (11) A significant change in the character of the non-selective school shall be deemed to occur if—

  1. (a) a county secondary school at present accepts all children from an area, without reference to their ability or aptitude, and
  2. (b) the local education authority concerned proposes to permit any children from the area of that non-selective school to enter any other county school provided or maintained by them, which does admit children by reference to their ability or aptitude.
I do not intend to keep the House very long at this hour, but I feel that I must do what I can to give my right hon. Friend the opportunity to defend existing comprehensive schools. I shall not repeat all the arguments I advanced on Second Reading, but my right hon. Friend will know that this Amendment arises as a result of the proposals of the Wolverhampton Education Committee to change the character of two comprehensive schools that now come within its area as a result of local government boundary reviews.

The Bill lays down what shall be regarded as changes in the character of a school. It mentions schools that begin or cease to provide education. … for pupils above or below a particular age, for boys as well as for girls, or for girls as well as for boys, or from the making or alteration of arrangements for the admission of pupils by reference to ability or aptitude…. The proposals to which I wish to draw attention change the intake based on ability and aptitude and on parental choice, and it is my submission and that of the staffs of the school and of the parents who are connected with the parent-teacher association that if parental choice can operate it will mean that children of the highest I.Q. range will be creamed off from the school, and separatism, which has been eliminated in the area, will be introduced, encouraged and prolonged. This will prejudice the whole development of comprehensive education in the area. It will render the viability of the sixth form virtually impossible. If a large number of parents opt out of the scheme, the school will become a glorified secondary modern school and this will have serious repercussions on the teaching staff. Teachers engaged to teach in a comprehensive school will seek other occupations where their interest and talents for comprehensive education will be better used. Parents who sent their children to that school because they wanted them to have comprehensive education, will have been let down and betrayed because a fully comprehensive system will no longer be supplied.

7.30 a.m.

The creaming off of even a small number of brighter children, which will depend on the places available in existing grammar schools, will affect the academic courses in the school and the kind of sixth form courses which can be provided. This will cause worry for parents, staff and children. The proposals, which will have the effect of allowing brighter children to go to existing grammar schools without permitting a compensating intake into the area to give freedom of choice to parents in other parts of Wolverhampton to send their children to comprehensive schools, will represent a serious change in the character of the schools.

I therefore move this Amendment and hope that my right hon. Friend will accept it in the spirit in which it is moved.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) certainly has a constituency problem here which she has raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me on several occasions. As she has described, this is an area which was in the Staffordshire City Council area, but which through local government changes has been transferred to Wolverhampton, where the children went to a comprehensive school. The trouble arose because now Wolverhampton education authority is giving the children in those areas the option of going to grammar schools in the non-reorganised part of the borough.

The Secretary of State and I have told my hon. Friend that we are sorry this step has been taken by Wolverhampton authority and we regard it as a retrograde step. My hon. Friend has moved this Amendment to deal with the case in Wolverhampton which is rather unusual. She attempted to move a similar Amendment in Committee. She was not in order, but I managed to reply to her out-of-order speech. This case is unusual in that there has been no selection in this area and now there is to be selection for schools in Wolverhampton. Although it is unusual in that respect, it is not unusual for there to be a choice of secondary schools within a local authority area. Several local authorities which are moving towards a genuine non-selective system of comprehensive education have, as an interim measure, a choice between a comprehensive school and a grammar school. This is only a temporary measure in these areas, and it is one which I am always glad to se disappear. It should be only temporary.

Wolverhampton has not yet submitted a scheme for comprehensive education. It is one of the few local authorities in the country which have not yet done so. So it cannot be said that this is at present an interim measure leading to full comprehensive education within the borough, as it is in the other areas which I have mentioned.

The Amendment would, however, have a restricting effect in many areas outside Wolverhampton. There would have to be a rigid catchment area, and no child could be allowed outside it to any school with selection of any kind. I am told that this did not altogether exist under the Staffordshire authority, where there was a choice of other schools on denominational or family grounds. Sometimes, too, numbers in a school mean variations in catchment areas and children having to go out of one catchment into another.

There is a defect in the Amendment because of the definition in the Bill of the meaning of change of character. The Amendment would have it that there was a significant change in the character of a comprehensive school if parents living within its catchment area were allowed to choose a selective school. This is inconsistent with the definition of what a significant change in the character of a school means. It does not mean a significant change of character in the ordinary meaning of the word "character". Schedule 1, paragraph 5(c) lays down that there is a significant change in the character of a school if there is a substantial change in its function.

The function of a comprehensive school is to provide a full range of secondary education for pupils on a non-selective basis. The effect on the character of the school in a more general sense would be marginal, if we look at it in that way; but I do not think that my hon. Friend could argue that this change would amount to a change in the function of the school, because the school would still provide for all ability ranges.

As I say, the Amendment would have a restrictive effect in many areas. It would mean that there would have to be a rigid catchment area. Roman Catholic parents, for example, would be prohibited from sending their children outside the catchment area to a school in Wolverhampton if that school happened to be a grammar school based on selection.

I sympathise with what my hon. Friend is trying to do. I am sorry that we cannot accept the Amendment. I am told—I have met a deputation, as she knows—that the parents in the area object strongly to the proposal of Wolverhampton. If that is so, the matter is in their own hands. If parents object to Wolverhampton saying to them, "If you wish, your child may sit for some sort of test to go to a grammar school in Wolverhampton", they will not avail themselves of the opportunity. To that extent the parents have the matter in their own hands.

Wolverhampton has not yet submitted a scheme to us. It is one of the very few areas which has not done so. As the years go by such areas will find that they have a totally different system of education from the rest of the country, unless something is done about it. I hope that we shall soon get a scheme from Wolverhampton which will end selection in the whole of the borough. If that happens, there will be no difficulties. I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend and I regard this as a retrograde step by Wolverhampton. I hope that the parents will still opt for their children to go to the comprehensive schools and that only a trickle will avail themselves of the opportunity of sending them to the grammar schools within the old Wolverhampton area.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 55 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.