HC Deb 17 October 1989 vol 158 cc12-3
11. Mr. Teddy Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what percentage of children in secondary schools are being educated in grammar schools operated by local education authorities; and what was the percentage 10 years ago.

Mr. Alan Howarth

In January 1989, 3.3 per cent. of secondary school children were being educated in local authority-maintained grammar schools, compared with 4.2 per cent. in January 1979.

Mr. Taylor

Is that not rather disappointing progress after 10 years of Conservative Government? Does my hon. Friend agree that grammar schools offer a better opportunity to able children from working-class homes than the territorial comprehensive scheme which, basically, creates class segregation in education? Would the Minister be willing to spare some of his busy time to visit either Southend-on-Sea—where we have four grammar schools operated by the local authority—or Northern Ireland, to see how better overall results can be obtained in A-levels and GCSEs through that form of education? Will the Government at least look into the educational consequences of grammar schools?

Mr. Howarth

It is no part of our policy—as it was part of the policy of the last Labour Government—to impose any particular scheme or organisation on schools. Under the Education Act 1980, it is for authorities to put forward proposals for reorganisation when they judge such action appropriate to the needs of their areas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considers any such proposals on their merits, although he certainly has regard to the academic record and academic prospects of individual schools, and will of course recognise that many of our grammar schools embody a fine academic tradition. That factor, and parental preferences, are always taken into account by him.

Ms. Armstrong

I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. I have it on the highest authority that he is a listening Minister, but that he was not very interested in resources when he was a Whip.

The real meaning of the figures that the Minister has read out is that the Government have closed 100 grammar schools—40 per cent. Does that not demonstrate that parents throughout the land are saying that they want their children to be educated in comprehensive schools which are committed to equality of opportunity for all children, regardless of their background, race or gender? Can we hope that the Government's future policy for dealing with the children of this nation will demonstrate a commitment similar to that of their parents?

Mr. Howarth

I was happy to listen at least to the first part of the hon. Lady's question, for which I was grateful.

In fact, I did not read out any figures, as such, so perhaps the hon. Lady herself was not listening very closely. What I said was that we had no dogmatic view about the virtues of any particular system of organisation. We have regard to the quality of schools, and to the particular needs of local areas. One of our guiding purposes is to enhance freedom of choice, so that parents have a right that we regard as proper: that is why I am glad to note that grant-maintained schools and CTCs, along with grammar schools, add to the elements of choice and variety in our system.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Has not diversity of provision in various types of school—including single-sex schools—been the strength of education in this country? Is it not a fact that what parents and pupils want above all are good teaching and good quality education, and is that not what the present Government have sought, successfully, to establish?

Mr. Howarth

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, who speaks with enormous experience and authority. That is why the twin thrusts of our policy are to enhance choice, and to ensure a proper curriculum that enables children to have the skills, knowledge and understanding that they require.