HC Deb 24 January 1996 vol 270 cc334-6
2. Mr. Congdon

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many pupils are currently educated in grammar schools. [9416]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

In January 1995, approximately 123,000 pupils were being taught in maintained grammar schools in England.

Mr. Congdon

Does my right hon. Friend agree that grammar schools provide not only an excellent education but a real choice for parents, particularly in inner-city areas? Does she also agree that parents who are fortunate enough to be able to send their children to such schools should have the courage to fight for the survival of grammar schools rather than to support policies that would ensure their destruction?

Mrs. Shephard

We are in favour of selection. Selective schools have a distinguished record of providing a high standard of education and increased choice, which many parents want for their children. Indeed, such parents are emerging in increasing numbers from the Opposition Benches. The events of the past few days have revealed that the Labour party's policy on choice, diversity and selection is a basic contradiction at the heart of its thinking—choice and diversity for some, but policy intentions to remove choice, diversity and opportunity for selection from everyone else.

Mr. Beggs

Does the Secretary of State agree that in Northern Ireland we have managed to maintain a high standard of education for our children by maintaining a selective system, but that in good secondary schools and comprehensive schools—in which teachers are dedicated and committed and pupils are streamed and educated according to their age and ability—youngsters achieve as much as they do in grammar schools?

Mrs. Shephard

What is important is that parents should have a range of schools from which to choose: selective, non-selective, grant-maintained, specialist schools, city technology colleges and, of course, access to the independent sector through the assisted places scheme. Sadly, such variety would be crushed out of existence by the Labour party's policies, should it ever have the chance to put those policies into practice.

Sir Malcolm Thornton

No one doubts the excellent record of many grammar schools in this country and the contributions they have made to many children's education. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is perhaps more important than the label which is put on a school—the name it is given—is what happens within it? Does she agree that those schools that are targeting the real needs of pupils will achieve the best for them and provide parents with the diversity and choice that is central to the Conservative party's attitude and approach to education?

Mrs. Shephard

There is no doubt that all schools are capable of providing an excellent education and good results. Schools, of course, depend very much on the quality of the head and teachers in them. That is why we are introducing a qualification for head teachers. I think that my hon. Friend will agree that a range of schools from which to choose, and the very existence of choice, help to drive up standards.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that grammar schools are not all that they are cracked up to be? I went to one and they taught me Latin—amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. They also taught me the Archimedes principle—when a body is weighed in air and then in a fluid, the upthrust or apparent loss in weight is equal to the weight of the fluid displaced. But none of that equipped me for life. I went down a coal mine, which is where I got my real education. Do not believe all that rubbish about selectivity. Let us give every child in Bolsover and the rest of Britain the chance to do as well as one another.

Mrs. Shephard

It is not part of the Government's policy to impose on our education system the dead hand of uniformity, as the Labour party would seek to do. The hon. Gentleman is the most wonderful advertisement for the selective system. He should be used in publicity.

Mr. Patrick Thompson

In the 1960s, I was a physics teacher at Manchester grammar school, teaching the Archimedes principle, and I am impressed by the knowledge of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on that subject. Does my right hon. Friend recall those direct grant selective grammar schools which provided a good education for people of all backgrounds in Manchester and throughout the country? Does she also recall that it was a Labour Government who pushed those schools out of the state system and thereby took away the opportunities for young people?

Mrs. Shephard

It was indeed the Labour party which, in the 1960s and 1970s, sought to use education as a tool for social engineering. If we read the lips of Opposition Members, see that they continue to want to do that. Did not a Labour predecessor of mine say that he would not rest until he had got rid of every blank grammar school in the country?

Ms Estelle Morris

The Secretary of State's comments on this issue are interesting. If the Conservatives think that selective grammar schools are so good, why did Baroness Thatcher close so many and why has the Secretary of State no plans to open more?

Mrs. Shephard

As I have already said a number of times, we are in favour of selection because we believe in diversity and choice for parents, as do some Opposition Members, particularly on the Labour Front Bench. As the hon. Lady knows, we are currently consulting on proposals to broaden selection. Although that has not been received with three cheers by all Opposition Members, I am sure that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) would welcome it. Given the welcome boost to the issue provided by Labour Members' activities, we shall consider what further developments might arise from that consultation exercise.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the comment in the "Our View" column of Monday night's Lancashire Evening Post, which said: Many parents still believe we are paying a high price for…comprehensive education."? Does not the fact that so many people apply to the two grammar schools in my constituency confirm that view?

Mrs. Shephard

Indeed. As I said, it is not part of the Government's policy to impose the dead hand of uniform comprehensive education across the country. We need choice and diversity, and selective schools are an important part of that.