HC Deb 20 March 1996 vol 274 cc367-70
13. Mr. Dunn

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many selective schools there are in England. [20135]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

In the 1995 secondary school performance tables, 163 maintained schools classified themselves as wholly or mainly selective.

Mr. Dunn

Given that these schools exist because of the election of the Conservative Government in 1979 and given that we are the only party committed to supporting selective schools and the extension of the selective principle, will my right hon. Friend tell the House how she believes that selective schools could continue to exist if they could not select pupils either by interview or by examination, as is the policy of the socialists opposite?

Mrs. Shephard

Selective schools are popular with parents, as the recent Association of Teachers and Lecturers survey found. That is why we will continue to examine ways of meeting parental preference for selective education and other choices, in stark contrast to the Opposition, who believe that such choice is only for the few. It is difficult to see how they could possibly say that they would meet parental preference for selection, as their policies are being formed by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who said, "Watch my lips—no selection." He could hardly be more unequivocal than that. He clearly meant that there will be no selection.

Mr. Alan Howarth

Has the right hon. Lady pointed out to the Prime Minister that he cannot extend selective education and continue to pretend that today's Conservative party stands for one nation?

Mrs. Shephard

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise the benefits of choice and diversity in education. By our policies, we are encouraging the development of choice and diversity across the spectrum of school provision. That is why we have grant-maintained schools, local education authority schools, city technology colleges, technology colleges, and so on, all of which we had when the hon. Gentleman supported our policies. Such a choice and such a spectrum benefit all parents, not just one or two on the Labour Front Bench.

Mr. Jenkin

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Colchester Royal grammar school and Colchester high school for girls are two of the finest grammar schools in the country? The socialists currently in control of Essex county council want to do away with grammar schools. If we allowed local education authorities to take back control of schools in Colchester, that would be the end of Colchester's grammar schools.

Mrs. Shephard

It would indeed. That would be a death blow for choice and diversity in Colchester.

Mr. Blunkett

Perhaps the Secretary of State will pass on to the Prime Minister the point that if the Government are attempting to build their education policy on the basis of trying to embarrass the Labour party on the issue of selection, they should think again. Will the Secretary of State confirm that excluding a child from a school because of an 11-plus examination denies opportunity and removes choice? Will she confirm that that is why she is against extending the 11-plus and returning to a bygone agenda—a past and dead agenda that was swept aside not only by parents and local councils but by her predecessors? Will she tell the House this afternoon whether she, as Secretary of State, or Norman Blackwell at the policy unit at No. 10 is in charge of Tory party policy?

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman needs no help from me in embarrassing himself and his party. What is more, he seems to be obsessed with splits. Our policies promote diversity, choice and opportunity. Diversity is a word only recently learnt by the hon. Gentleman. He has learnt the word, but he has not transmitted the skill into the creation of policies. We are, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is saying elsewhere today, currently considering how to increase the rich variety in the schools system that we have created with more selective schools. The Opposition support choice, diversity and selection for a few on their Front Bench. They would deny it to all other parents by their policies. I call that a split.

14. Mr. Pawsey

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how many young people are now educated in grant-maintained schools and grammar schools; and what plans she has to promote selective education. [20136]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

Almost 700,000 pupils are now being educated in grant-maintained schools of all types, and about 125,000 in grammar schools across the maintained sector as a whole. We have just completed consultation on extending selection, without the need to publish statutory proposals, from 10 to 15 per cent.

Mr. Pawsey

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that very comprehensive reply. Will she confirm that the survey conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers revealed that the majority of parents wish to see selective education? As Labour Members take advantage of selective education—I refer to both the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)—does my right hon. Friend agree that that suggests a growing consensus between the Opposition and the Government in that area? Therefore, will she build on that consensus and increase the amount of selective education—particularly in grant-maintained schools—from 15 to 20 per cent?

Mrs. Shephard

As I have said, we have just completed a consultation exercise about extending selection, without the need to publish statutory proposals, from 10 to 15 per cent. Applications from schools and from local education authorities to become selective are always considered seriously within the Department.I agree with my hon. Friend that there seems to be an increasing consensus among some Labour Front Benchers in favour of choice and diversity across the spectrum. It is unfortunate for the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) that, when he said, "Watch my lips—no selection," his hon. Friend the Member for Peckham was not looking.

Mr. Byers

Does the Secretary of State agree that all parents should be able to choose good schools for their children? If so, will she inform the House how a return to selection would assist in achieving that objective when selection, by its very nature, denies parental choice by putting the power in the hands of individual schools which select a few and condemn the majority to be deemed failures? Will the Secretary of State confirm that last week she told head teachers that she was personally opposed to a return to the waste of selection at 11? How does she reconcile that position with the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for a rapid expansion of selective education?

Mrs. Shephard

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman straight away that my right hon. Friend and I are absolutely at one in our desire to see a diversity of provision within our school sector, because we both believe that it drives up standards.