HC Deb 20 October 1999 vol 336 cc361-83

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

9.34 am
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

I am delighted to have secured this debate on an important topic for the education of children in many parts of England. The question of the future of the grammar schools, which is sometimes dismissed by some hon. Members as a sideshow or an irrelevance, is deeply important not only for the schools concerned, which are doing an excellent job, but because of what it tells us about the nature of education and how education systems can be run most effectively for the benefit of all our children.

It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to learn that during the Wirral, South by-election—I see the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) in his place—the Prime Minister, who was at the time the Leader of the Opposition, told the electorate: A Labour Government would not close your grammar schools. That is my personal guarantee. I am not interested in closing good schools. That may have given heart to parents in Wirral, South and other constituencies, but I am not sure that it is entirely consonant with events since the new Government came to power.

More recently, we have seen the Prime Minister declare to the Labour party conference that the class war is over. In that context, I thought that it might be useful to draw the attention of the House to some comments that have been made by Andrew Adonis, who is now an adviser to the Prime Minister on educational matters. In "A Class Act: the Myth of Britain's Classless Society"—published by Penguin Books in 1998—which Andrew Adonis co-authored with Stephen Pollard, a former research director of the Fabian Society, they state: The comprehensive revolution has not removed the link between education and class, but strengthened it. They continue: In 1965, the Labour-controlled House of Commons resolved that moving to a comprehensive system would preserve all that is valuable in grammar school education for those children who now receive it and make it available to more children. Few would maintain that this has in fact been the case.

Later in the book the authors state: The comprehensive revolution tragically destroyed much of the excellent without improving the rest. Comprehensive schools have largely replaced selection by ability with selection by class and house price. Middle class children now go to middle class comprehensives. Far from bringing the classes together, England's schools—private and state—are now a force for rigorous segregation. That is what the Prime Minister's adviser thinks of the policy of further comprehensivisation of England's education system. However, one of the earliest steps taken by the new Government, in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998—I had the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee—was to introduce measures that placed the remaining grammar schools in peril.

The Government implemented a one-way ratchet that allows the removal of grammar schools, but not the introduction of grammar schools. Labour Members claim that the issue is one of parental choice, but that is not true. Parents are free to choose not to have a grammar school, but they are not free to choose to have a grammar school. The ballot question is loaded, because it does not even refer to grammar schools or the intention to abolish them.

The balloting and petitioning system leaves many disfranchised voters. Parents with pre-school children or children at private schools are disfranchised for the purposes of the petition, although they can go to the trouble of registering for the purposes of the ballot. In the borough of Trafford, some 400 children attend St. Bede's college, which is a private Catholic grammar school, but they are funded as state grammar school pupils by the borough. The parents of those children are also disfranchised.

The petition provides for no mechanism to check whether signatures are genuine. The signatures will simply be checked against the list of eligible voters. The Government have not contracted the Electoral Reform Society to engage in any proper check or scrutiny of whether those people who appear to have signed a petition have in fact done so.

Two and a half years into the Labour Government's term, several grammar schools are threatened, including 33 in Kent, seven in Trafford, eight in Birmingham, three in Barnet and one in Ripon. Margaret Tulloch of the Campaign for State Education—CASE—has identified the five grammar schools in Sutton and Surrey as probable targets for this year. Why? In my view, the attacks are entirely prompted by mindless, outdated ideology. The whole debate on the Government's side has been dominated, tragically, by the ideas of an education system that Labour Members saw or experienced in the 1950s, not the reality of selective education as it is today.

In that context, I draw the House's attention to some press comment on the subject, especially from my own area. For example, the Manchester Evening News, although not noted for its right-wing sympathies, on 17 November 1998, in an editorial entitled "Caning the Able", stated: One may imagine that, with failing schools all over the country, the government would not want to waste any effort tinkering with those which are the most successful. You may think that an education system so popular that parents move home to take advantage of it would be safe from interference. Yet the consistently high achieving grammar schools of Trafford are among selective schools which could be forced to go comprehensive as a result of a Commons vote today which will allow ballots among parents and feeder primary schools. The article got the details of the School Standards and Framework Bill slightly wrong. It went on: It has been a long-held Labour philosophy that selective education is unfair. Latterly, it had seemed that the pragmatism of New Labour might allow them to turn a blind eye to those remaining pockets of non-comprehensive schooling. Plainly, we were wrong to think that. For the sake of their principles, the Government may be about to compromise the educational opportunities of generations to come. I am also pleased to see that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is in the Chamber, as I should like to quote an excellent article that he wrote in the Sunday People: Grammar schools are the outstanding success of public education in this country. They act as beacons shining out so that all can see what can be achieved in the State system. I entirely concur with those sentiments. I am especially pleased that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead is here today, as it demonstrates that this issue is not confined to one political party.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell the House that the theme of my article was that both main political parties in this country have found it terribly difficult to get secondary education right. My article also stated that we should try to spread around the successes that are achieved, and that we should want all schools to succeed in their different ways, whether it be in technology, arts or languages. If that is to be our strategy, it would be as wrong to discriminate against schools because they are academically good as it would be to discriminate against others because they excel in some other aspect of education.

Mr. Brady: Absolutely

I am delighted to confirm that that is the theme of the right hon. Gentleman's article. In this, as in many other areas of policy, the right hon. Gentleman's thinking is some way ahead of that of the Government and of many commentators. Later in my speech, I shall argue that the borough of Trafford, if it has not achieved the ideal that the right hon. Gentleman described, has at least approached it quite closely, as is shown by the overall standards and levels of achievement of its schools.

The success of grammar schools is well known and easy to identify. This year, half the top 200 places in the A-level league table were occupied by grammar schools, as were nearly half the top 300 GCSE league table places. In 1998, the 12 local education authorities at the top of the GCSE achievement tables all offered some elements of selection.

Labour Members may say that such results are surely inevitable, given that the most academically able children have been selected to go to those schools. However, I invite them to look at the overall achievements of the LEAs, as that evidence lays to rest the myth about the selective system. Of the 149 LEAs in England, 29 have a significant element of selection. In 1998, all the top five places in terms of performance were occupied by selective LEAs. Trafford came first, followed by Bournemouth, Sutton, Southend and Buckinghamshire. Twenty-three of the 29 fully or partially selective LEAs achieved above the LEA average for the country as a whole.

The evidence in my constituency fully supports those findings. Schools such as the Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic high school, Green Lanes high school, New Wellington school, and the Ashton-on-Mersey school all achieved outstanding results. Indeed, the Secretary of State himself declared the Ashton-on-Mersey school to be a beacon school—one whose achievements are so excellent that it shows the way for other schools in the surrounding area.

Strikingly, the success of selective LEAs becomes even more marked when like-for-like comparisons of areas' socio-economic profiles are made. A comparison between 22 LEAs that offer similar numbers of free school meals shows that selective LEA areas come top in 16 instances.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

I have a question that I hope the hon. Gentleman will clarify. In 1971, under a Conservative Government, a Conservative council in my county of Suffolk abolished grammar schools and introduced a comprehensive education system. Today, that system enjoys the confidence of the people of Suffolk. It achieves good standards according to the league tables, and no school opted out of it to go grant maintained. Does the hon. Gentleman maintain that the system in Suffolk is less good than that obtaining in the area that he represents, or does he wish to introduce a grammar school to every town in Suffolk?

Mr. Brady

It is not really a question of what I say or think. I simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that the figures show that the system in the borough of Trafford achieves better results than the one operating in Suffolk. That is not a matter for us to quibble over: I have stated a simple matter of fact.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Does not my hon. Friend agree that what we consider to be the appropriate system in Suffolk is not the important point, but that what parents in Suffolk choose is? Did not my hon. Friend make the point earlier in his excellent speech that the Government have deprived parents of choice? Although parents can choose to allow grammar schools to become comprehensives, the Government have decided—disingenuously and in a manner that lacks balance—that it is not possible for parents to decide that comprehensive schools can become grammar schools. Is not that what is so unfair?

Mr. Brady

My hon. Friend is right. The one-way ratchet enshrined in the legislation is entirely wrong. I can tell the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) that I do not think that there should be a grammar school in every town unless parents want that. However, parents and schools should have the freedom to decide the arrangements that suit them. It should not be left to Government diktat.

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

Why not give them a choice?

Mr. Brady

That is a remarkable question, given that the right hon. Lady was the Minister who, in the Standing Committee considering what became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, opposed my amendment to give parents in all schools precisely that choice. So my record on the matter is entirely clean; the Minister should look to her own record before casting aspersions on mine.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Like me, my hon. Friend belongs to the growing tradition of Conservatives who pay mortgages and buy their own furniture. Does he not agree that it is especially unfortunate, as he develops his arguments, that he should be chuckled at by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who represents the wing of her party that has inherited wealth and privilege?

Mr. Brady

I need hardly comment. As ever, my hon. Friend has made a fascinating contribution to the debate that will enlighten hon. Members on both sides.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)


Mr. Brady

I hope that the hon. Lady can contain herself, as I should like to return to the evidence of the achievements of selective systems of education. I was seeking to destroy the myth that selective systems perform better only when they are in wealthier areas.

That that is palpably untrue is borne out by the facts in Trafford, which is not the wealthiest part of the country. It has some wealthy areas, and some with considerable deprivation. In Trafford, 18.9 per cent. of children receive free school meals. That is higher than the national average, yet the LEA is arguably first, second or third in terms of academic performance. So Trafford demolishes the myth. I compare that with Kirklees, an LEA which has a slightly smaller 18.8 per cent. figure for free school meals. While Trafford was third in the 1998 GCSE results, Kirklees was 89th.

If we lose our grammer schools, selection by ability and merit will be replaced by selection by mortgage or postcode. Altrincham boys grammar school—my old school—and Altrincham girls grammar school are located in perhaps the most prosperous parts of Trafford. Under a comprehensive system, they would draw their pupils from some of the most expensive housing in the north of England. In the wards of Hale and Bowdon, new three-bedroom apartments have recently gone on the market at £500,000. That would not open up the best schools in the country to all pupils regardless of ability. It would do precisely the opposite, depriving access to the best schools to pupils who have the ability but whose parents do not have the wealth to secure that education.

The situation is similar in Barnet, where the Henrietta Barnett school would draw its catchment from Hampstead Garden Suburb, which has some of the most expensive housing in London. Destroying selection and the grammar schools would achieve precisely the opposite of what so many of the enemies of the grammar schools seek. Professor John Musgrove, former professor of education at Manchester university, said: You might have expected the Labour Party to abolish the public schools … It really was an astonishing historical irony that they should have abolished grammar schools instead. It was idiocy of the highest order and a disaster for academically gifted working and lower middle class children. That case is further illustrated by the results achieved in 1998 by Altrincham girls grammar school. It is an exceptionally good school and 99 per cent. of the girls achieved five or more A starred to C passes at GCSE. By comparison, Eton college achieved 97 per cent., Harrow 92 per cent., and Cheltenham ladies college 89 per cent. That is the reality of an education system that provides the best possible schooling for children, regardless of their parents' ability to pay. Those public schools are selective, but extremely expensive to enter.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

May I take the hon. Gentleman to another flagship area of his party's policy—the private sector? How many public schools are selective?

Mr. Brady

I chose the future of grammar schools for today's debate. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am no great champion of private schools. I believe that people should be free to choose private education if they wish, but I champion grammar schools precisely because I believe that they open up to all, regardless of ability to pay, an education for the children of parents who might otherwise have to pay. If the hon. Gentleman wants to enlighten the House by giving the statistics that he seeks from me, I shall be happy to give way again, but they would not add anything to the debate.

Mr. Fabricant

I cannot help with those statistics, but others are revealing. Since the abolition of grammar schools, the popularity of private schools among parents has gone up.

Mr. Brady

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people who will be hurt by the Government's measures—if they proceed—will be those who cannot pay for an alternative. As happened when grammar schools were abolished, those who have the parental wealth to go elsewhere will do so. The polarisation of our education system and of opportunity for our children will thus increase, not diminish.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

It may be worth noting that many successful independent schools resulted directly from the move to the independent sector of direct-grant grammar schools when the Labour party last chose to mount an assault on the education system.

Mr. Brady

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Many of those schools were also able to preserve a tradition of free places through the assisted places scheme, another measure that the Government removed in order to diminish opportunity for ordinary children.

The Government's proposals diminish opportunity for those from working class or lower middle class families who do not have the ability to pay. However, they will also affect other groups, particularly ethnic minorities. A perfect example of the detrimental effect of the Government's policy is the Queen Elizabeth grammar school in Barnet, which draws 41 per cent. of its pupils from other cultural groups, according to the categorisation of the Department for Education and Employment. Most of those pupils are Asian people who got into the school on ability, not because of where they live or their ability to pay. The wards that would comprise the feeder area for the school under a comprehensive system have an ethnic minority population of 7.5 per cent. Members of ethnic minority groups are benefiting from the massive opportunity of fantastic education standards, and it would be snatched away from them by an unthinking and outdated policy.

A further effect of change would be a need for reorganisation in many education authority areas. Again, we face wasted opportunities for ordinary children and wasted money in LEAs that seek to amalgamate or close schools or rationalise school estates. In Kent, education officers estimate that that would cost £150 million. Replicate that sum across all the areas that have grammar schools and the cost would be £0.5 billion—money wasted on destroying good education rather than trying to improve bad education.

Old socialists and new Fabians—there may even be one or two of them on the Labour Benches today—frequently have more sense than to support the policies that the Government are pursuing. Stephen Pollard, former research director of the Fabian Society, has made his views clear: you don't overcome failure by destroying a success—grammar schools. Indeed, so true is this that the real motivation of the educational establishment is all too clearly revealed: to preserve its current power. Sydney Webb, one of the founders of the Fabians, argued: What we have learned gradually and slowly is that nothing worthy of the name of a national education system can be built up of schools of a single undifferentiated type. What he learned gradually and slowly seems to have been unlearned rather quickly by Labour between the Wirral, South by-election and today.

In 1999, the Select Committee on Education and Employment reported on highly able children, noting: Overall, the evidence showed that different types of schools, selective and non-selective, suit different kinds of pupils. We have been left with a poor set of regulations that will influence the future of the grammar schools. They were criticised by the House of Lords in May 1998 when concern was expressed at how the proposals had been put in place through regulations rather than primary legislation. We are stuck with a flawed procedure, loaded against the remaining grammar schools.

At the very least, parents around the country have a right to expect that those regulations will be observed and policed by Ministers. The Minister will be well aware that one of the regulations requires a prohibition on the use of public funds. Let me enlighten the House by drawing attention to some past exchanges between the Minister and me during the School Standards and Framework Bill's Committee stage. She said: The Bill prevents them from using public money … Local authorities cannot use public money to campaign. Therefore it is right for that restriction to apply to schools and governing bodies. I returned with the question: Will the Minister clarify whether a governing body could campaign corporately, provided it did not use public money? The Minister answered: No … The governing body as a legal entity would not be able to campaign."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 24 February 1998; c. 678-9.] It is not only the use of public resources that is banned under the regulations; there is a prohibition on the entry into the debate of legal public bodies, such as schools, governing bodies and local education authorities. They are not permitted to incur expenditure to assist anyone else to publish such material or to influence or assist anyone else in influencing the outcome of a petition or ballot.

Regardless of the use of public money, schools and LEAs are barred from involvement as corporate bodies. That is why I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment a little over a week ago to ask him to look into the situation in the borough of Trafford where evidence has come to light of a school across the boundary in Manchester writing to parents who are Trafford residents and using school letterheaded paper, school facilities and the school roll, thereby incurring public expense. In writing formally on letterheaded paper, signed by the headmaster of the school, it has not only used public funds but engaged as a corporate body in the campaign against the Trafford grammar schools.

Given that several hundred parents have received this one-sided propaganda campaigning material from the Stop the 11-plus campaign, I have asked that the Secretary of State use his powers to declare the process void for this academic year in the borough of Trafford. I seek nothing more than fairness and an evenhanded approach. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response, which may come today or, as she suggests, a little later.

I hope that Ministers will enforce the regulations on all schools and on both sides of the debate and take this caution to heart. If they do not, they will not merely be refusing to implement the regulations in this instance, but setting a precedent for all schools, LEAs and interested parties that will define the point to which the regulations will be enforced or ignored. That threatens a free-for-all in the areas where we face campaigns for the abolition of the grammar schools.

That instance was not the first contravention of the rules. In January 1998, I had cause to report Trafford borough council itself, which had sent misleading advice to parent teacher associations, warning that they would lose their charitable status if they sent information to parents relating to the ballot and the future of selection. I took advice from the Charity Commissioners and found that the council's advice had been totally unfounded and that only party political campaigning would have contravened charitable status. That showed not a school but the LEA, through the borough council, engaging in the debate and trying to influence the future of selection in contravention of the regulations set out by the Government. I reported it to the Secretary of State but, perhaps unsurprisingly, no action was taken.

There have been reports of other abuses around the country. It has been reported that anti-grammar school campaigners have booked council chambers as if for union meetings and so not paid for the facilities. There have been reports of children signing the petitions. If they signed in the name of their parents, the situation would not be covered because the Government have made no provision for verifying whether signatures are genuine. There are reports of trade union funding of the anti-grammar campaign, which results in an unfair imbalance of resources. There are also reports of names being transferred to petitions directly from the list of electors en bloc, which again could not be discovered because the Government did not take the trouble to contract the Electoral Reform Society to check whether people have really expressed their wishes in the petition process.

What now? It is time for the Government to admit the truth: selection works. It works for pupils in grammar schools but also for those in high schools, who achieve better results under a selective system than they would under a comprehensive one. It works for low and middle-income families who cannot afford to go elsewhere for their education. It works for the ethnic minorities, who have a route out of poverty and a chance to achieve according to their abilities.

It is time for Ministers to get a grip of the situation and either enforce the regulations by declaring the process in Trafford void and setting a precedent to show that the regulations will be enforced properly around the country, or by recognising that the regulations are not tight enough and repealing them because they do not properly protect the process and ensure fair, balanced, and open debate. They do not provide for a fair question to be asked or for a proper decision to be reached.

We cannot proceed with an unfair campaign, in breach of the rules, that could destroy the very best education in the country. That would harm the interests not of a few children in grammar schools today but of millions of children all over the country for many years to come

10.6 am

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

I am grateful for having been called in this debate secured by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). Like him, I am the product of a grammar school. My school offered an excellent education. It is true that I did not take advantage of that, but that was my fault rather than the school's.

When I fought the Wirral, South by-election, one of the main themes was that grammar schools would be safe in Labour's hands. There are only 163 grammar schools left in Britain and we took the view that if they provided good education—as I am sure that most, if not all, do—they should go on providing it. Where they were better than other schools, the other schools should be advanced to the same standard. In the Wirral, while, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has often said, grammar schools are beacons of excellence, they sit alongside other schools that perform to very high standards.

for example, I recently visited Plessington high school and technology college and South Wirral high school, both of which, like other schools, achieve excellent results in every sense. High standards and co-existence are perfectly possible, but what we are about is improving education for all of the people—for the many, not the few. We are about standards rather than structures. With 26,000 schools in the United Kingdom, there is no point in tilting at the windmill of grammar schools when they are so few and, in any event, doing a good job. We are not like Margaret Thatcher, who, as Secretary of State for Education, set the world record for the closure of grammar schools. We are about educational standards rather than dogma.

It is against that background that we established the grammar school ballot regulations, providing for parental—and no one else's—control of the future of schools. That took decisions out of the hands of politicians and put them firmly into the hands of the parents concerned. That is as it should be.

As the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West said, politicians, whether local or national, are specifically excluded from taking part in the ballot process on a party political basis. Councillors need to be careful to state that they are expressing personal views, as the local education authority is bound to provide only factual information, a fair and reasonable assessment of the consequences of the ballot and a statement of its intentions.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I was struck by the hon. Gentleman's comment that it would be for parents to make up their own minds. In Buckinghamshire, where selective education continues, the first meeting initiated to try to get rid of grammar schools was chaired not by a parent but by an individual who came from outside the county, and whom I understand to be a member of the Labour party. How can the hon. Gentleman say that it is being left to the parents when it is an orchestrated campaign that seems to come from his party?

Mr. Chapman

I do not know of those particular circumstances; certainly, any voting in a ballot is for the parents and nobody else. Ultimately, the decision lies with the parents. It is right that they should make decisions on the future of their children's education.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way. Does he agree that, if parents are to make a genuine decision in a genuine ballot, the wording on the ballot paper should itself be genuine? Is he satisfied that the wording is genuine? If so, can he explain why—as I understand it—the words "grammar schools" do not appear anywhere in any wording proposed for any ballot?

Mr. Chapman

I have not studied the wording of the voting terms, but—

Mr. Field

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in Wirral, our parents are so intelligent that they would not need to have grammar schools put on the ballot paper to know which schools we were speaking about? Similarly, if any agitators from outside Wirral came in to try to initiate meetings, the local Members of Parliament would give them a pretty good run for their money.

Mr. Chapman

In my part of the world, parents continue—as they should—to have high aspirations for their offspring. As a result, many put forward their children for the 11-plus, in the hope that they will pass the examination. I visit the grammar schools, as I visit other schools in my constituency, and talk to the heads and teachers, and to the pupils, whom I receive regularly at the Palace of Westminster. I give the grammar schools, and other schools, whatever support and help I can; I hope that today is no exception.

In Wirral, to the best of my knowledge, there is no groundswell of opinion against grammar schools. I hope, therefore, that they can be left alone to establish a sense of security and to continue performing to high standards. That is not to say that there are not current issues in respect of children who sat the 11-plus and failed, and then went to secondary modern schools. By the nature of their being "secondary", children might have been seen to be branded as failures from day one at their senior schools.

Wirral council has tried to address that by establishing all-ability schools to sit alongside the grammar schools. As I have pointed out, that is perfectly possible with standards of excellence. I have much sympathy with the concept, but there are difficulties in translating it into reality. For example, there are no resources to help the process forward. Some parents feel that they may be hindered from sending their children to the school of their choice, or that all-ability schools will not offer the full range of the curriculum. They have made their views on the subject clearly known to me, and I have passed those views to the local education authority. Their concerns are sincere and need to be addressed.

I have said before that if the 11-plus did not exist, I would not seek to invent it. However, in some areas it does exist, and its consequences are grammar schools. What grammar schools need is stability. The perpetual threat of balloting is corrosive of the sense of security of the school, its staff and pupils. The opportunities for ballots, while rightly existing, should be less frequent. The absence of a ballot, like a failed ballot, should make for a moratorium on balloting for a reasonable period. Only in that way can schools plan ahead.

I shall not delay the Chamber for a moment longer. This is a plea, once again, for standards rather than structures.

Mr. Brady

I am most encouraged by the sensible contribution made by the hon. Gentleman. In order to be clear, if he had a vote as a parent in the Wirral, would he vote to retain or to get rid of the grammar schools?

Mr. Chapman

Given that I stood for election on the basis that grammar schools were safe in Labour's hands, I would vote for the retention of grammar schools.

If our grammar schools are doing a good job, and in my patch they certainly are, let us leave well alone—"If they ain't broke, they don't need fixing."

10.15 am
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

The more I come into the Chamber, the more I realise that the whole world seems to have changed around. To hear the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) arguing for the retention of grammar schools is quite an interesting development.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on securing the debate. In many ways, it clearly demonstrates that the Tory party has reached its new common-sense revolution—back to the R. A. Butler Education Act 1944 and division by ability. That is what is being argued for. A mere 72 days before the end of the millennium, when many are striving to create a more inclusive society, where inequalities are minimised and opportunities maximised, the hon. Gentleman and his party want to retain—

Mr. Brady

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis

I have just started and, as the hon. Gentleman had 32 minutes in which to speak, I shall carry on.

The hon. Gentleman's party wants to create, re-create, retain or enhance a system of education that, across the world, has largely been abandoned—a system that is as divisive as it is archaic. Yes, I did go to Burnley grammar school from 1953 to 1960.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The hon. Gentleman is in self-denial.

Mr. Willis

Yes, I received an excellent education—to respond to the comments made by the hon. Member from a sedentary position. Yes, I was privileged to be taught by a largely well-qualified and dedicated group of teachers. However, if the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West went into Harrogate grammar school in my constituency today, and spoke to pupils or parents, the majority would make exactly the same comments about their education as I made about my education between 1953 and 1960.

The essential difference is that Harrogate grammar school is now a fully fledged comprehensive school. Furthermore, the other five secondary schools in my constituency are also comprehensive schools. Each one is different in character and ethos. Each offers parents choice and diversity. Each one produces results that are above the national norms in every case. Statemented children are not barred at the gate of St. John Fisher high school; every child in Knaresborough automatically has a place at King James's school; and Down's syndrome children can sing in the choir at St. Aidan's high school. However, all three schools regularly feature in the annual league tables among the country's most successful schools—this year, one of them was among the top 25 comprehensive schools.

All have flourishing musical, artistic and sporting traditions. No student is made to feel a failure at the age of 11, as my brother was when he failed his 11-plus and was sent to the secondary modern school in Burnley. No parent has to make excuses for their child's lack of success. No teacher has an excuse for a student's lack of achievement. That is an important issue which must be constantly addressed. For far too long, the 11-plus was regarded as an excuse for children's failure. Of course, the hon. Member for Wirral, South is right; there are some superb secondary modern schools—if I may use that term—throughout the country. They are doing a marvellous job and good luck to them. We should congratulate and celebrate them.

However, in reality, the 11-plus was an excuse for failure and far too many students, such as my brother, not only suffered at the time as a result of that failure, but suffered for the rest of their lives. So attractive are the schools in my constituency that about 300 pupils from Ripon—where selection is retained, and the grammar school and the secondary modern school are across the road from one another within the same community—regularly opt to come into Harrogate and Knaresborough's comprehensive system. A large number of them pass the 11-plus, but their parents decide on an inclusive, comprehensive education for their children.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West mentioned LEAs. North Yorkshire, which has only three grammar schools—two in Skipton and one in Ripon—is consistently among the 10 highest achieving LEAs every year. In North Yorkshire, comprehensive education is not only alive and well, but is succeeding throughout.

I accept that not all children have access to schools of the quality found in my constituency. I have worked in areas where failing schools were all too common and were all too commonly excused because of various socio-economic factors.

If, as I hope, part of this debate is about raising standards and increasing opportunities for all our children, let us not start by preserving the drawbridge mentality of yesteryear. Surely, it is indefensible for Kent's 33 grammar schools to admit only 29 children who are statemented as having special educational needs, while its 72 other schools—the secondary moderns and comprehensives—welcome 1,979 such children. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West did not refer once to special needs children and their access to grammar schools; that is because, by and large, such children are denied access to grammar schools.

Mr. Brady

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has finally given way, because several of the points he has made so far are entirely inaccurate or red herrings of some sort, and his point about special educational needs is utterly erroneous. Of course I did not mention special educational needs in the context of access to grammar schools: I spoke of a selective system of education achieving the best results for all children and it is highly improbable that most SEN children would find their best place in a grammar school that caters especially for the academically most able children.

Mr. Willis

There we have it. If a justification for the debate was needed, it can be found in the hon. Gentleman's statement, which sums up Tory policy on division. If that is the Tory party's common-sense view of special educational needs as we move into the next millennium, God help us if it ever gets back into power. We have fought tooth and nail for an inclusive system for all our children, yet the Tories say that, because a child has a statement, that child is automatically excluded. The presumption that special needs children do not have innate ability is anathema to me and contrary to the principles for which I have fought.

Mr. Brady

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis

No, I will not.

The Tories had 18 years to reverse the comprehensive system. That they did not do so was because the majority of parents recognise only too well that a system that creates grammar schools also creates secondary modern schools. I have yet to hear any hon. Member propose the extension or, indeed, the retention of secondary moderns. Noticeable by its absence from the speech of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West was any argument in favour of the retention of secondary modern schools in his constituency.

Mr. Grieve

May I enlighten the hon. Gentleman by telling him that, in my constituency, the success of the grammar schools is entirely dependent on the high standards in the secondary modern schools that remain? Their standards are well above the national average and I am quite sure that it is because of satisfaction with those schools that there is no desire to change the current selective education system.

Mr. Willis

I have no knowledge of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. If he wanted to put that statement on the record, he has succeeded.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), the former Prime Minister who is now airbrushed out of Tory political history, wanted a grammar school in every town, but where are those schools? Only Solihull took up the challenge, but that ended in dismal failure. When she was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, his right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) tried to divide our school communities by offering bribes to schools to opt out and become grant maintained, but fewer than a thousand schools took those bribes. The message from parents was clear: the vast majority do not want division.

I have mentioned Harrogate grammar school. Under the Conservative Government, appalling attempts were made to divide the six brilliant comprehensive schools within my constituency. The then Secretary of State was to announce the result of the ballot at the Tory party central council meeting in Harrogate; sadly, 80 per cent. voted against going grant maintained, so she never turned up.

Mrs. Gillan

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has spoken of our experience in our county of Buckinghamshire. The hon. Gentleman is leaving hon. Members and spectators outside the House with the impression that grammar schools are bad for the non-selective schools in the area, but that is quite false. I carried out a study of Salisbury and south Birmingham, where grammar schools and non-selective schools co-exist. In both areas, the proportion of pupils in the non-selective schools who achieved GCSE grades A to C rose significantly faster than the national average. That proves that grammar schools are good for us. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now correct the false impression that he has given.

Mr. Willis

I shall make my position absolutely clear: I do not accept the premise that having grammar schools is good for non-selective schools in the area. I defy the hon. Lady to go to Kent and ask parents of children at most of Kent's secondary modern schools whether they believe that grammar schools are doing their children a service.

When the new common-sense policy on education was launched by the Tories in Blackpool, no mention was made of a return to grammar schools. Only their stealth policy was announced: to hold ballots to close failing schools—and then, presumably, to recreate them as grammar schools, as those are the excellent schools. Of course I agree that the current farce surrounding ballots should be exposed as a sham, but it is no more of a sham than allowing only parents of children at a so-called failing school to vote in the ballot on its closure. Each ballot is a sham in its own way.

During the passage of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I consistently opposed the proposal to ballot parents on the closure of grammar schools, because ballots are such an imprecise tool in that context. The whole community, not only parents of potentially affected children, should have a stake in local schools. Like the creation of a grant-maintained school, the closure—or, indeed, the opening—of a grammar school is like throwing a stone into a pond, with the effect felt much more widely than merely at the point of impact. That is why we have consistently opposed any further selection in schools, be it based on aptitude or ability.

Dr. Julian Lewis

For the sake of clarity, will the hon. Gentleman state, once and for all, whether it is Liberal Democrat policy to close all grammar schools without ballots?

Mr. Willis

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has, once again, come in on cue to enable me to explain Liberal Democrat policy in all its clarity. He is such a diligent researcher that I am sure that he has read through the Hansard record of the debates on the School Standards and Framework Act and has discovered that Liberal Democrat Members consistently opposed the extension of selection, whether based on aptitude or ability.

We have also made it clear that the local education authority should decide the admissions policy within its area. Elected representatives should make such decisions, because they have been elected to consider the broader aspects of education in the local authority area. They remain when parents have moved on, so it is they who can plan for the future, rather than for the moment. Although I realise that it is a difficult concept for Conservative Members to understand, it would be quite presumptuous of me to impose a solution on local elected representatives.

Dr. Lewis

No ballots?

Mr. Willis

I have made it absolutely clear that we are opposed to ballots on that matter. The decision should be made by the local education authority, not through a potentially rigged ballot. At least the hon. Gentleman and I agree on the subject of ballots.

The current proposals, whereby 72 grammar schools will be covered by feeder school ballots rather than area ballots, are as illogical as they are controversial. It is nonsense that, in feeder ballots, parents of children at key stage 1 in a primary school will get a vote, but parents of children at key stage 1 in an infants school that feeds a junior school that might feed a grammar school will not.

How cowardly the question on the ballot paper will be. The hon. Member for New Forest, East was right to raise that issue, because the question will be: Are you in favour of all the schools listed introducing admission arrangements which admit children of all abilities? What would any reasonable parent answer to that? Surely the only straightforward honest question would be: "Do you want to see the 11-plus, or 13-plus, examination scrapped?"

I know how passionately the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West feels about the grammar schools in his area, and I do not wish to denigrate in any way the quality of the education provided there. That would be wrong. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman is not personally responsible for the current ballot farce; the blame lies firmly with the Government, who, as a result of feedback from their focus groups, have bottled out of making a principled decision about the future of grammar schools. Indeed, we have seen some of those focus groups in action this morning.

The Secretary of State made it clear before the election that selection by ability would be abolished. There was no ambiguity about it. He said: Watch my lips—no selection, by examination or interview". That means exactly what it says; it means "We are getting rid of it." Even as late as 13 November 1998, Lord Hunt said in another place: We do not support selection by ability at age 11; and we do not wish to see it extended".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 November 1998; Vol. 594, c. 926.] Yet the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 extended selection to enable schools to select 10 per cent. of pupils for aptitude—and we have never been told whether aptitude and ability mean the same thing. The whole issue was fudged.

Mr. Grieve

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis

I shall bring my remarks to a close now, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I have given way to him once already.

For too long, the threat to abolish or create grammar schools has been kicked about like a football. The hon. Member for Wirral, South was right to say that that is not fair on the people in those school. Either the Government should have the courage of their pre-election convictions and legislate to remove grammar schools or they should leave the decision to local authorities. At least local councillors can be booted out of office, as we can. I suspect that the parents who vote in the ballot may be less interested once their children have left the system.

10.32 am
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I hesitate to speak in the debate because every time I speak on education we hear the constant refrain of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) about the school that I attended. However, I had no more influence on my education than the hon. Gentleman had on his lack of stature—and they have probably had an equal influence on us.

I wish to contribute to the debate because I represent the constituency which I believe has the largest proportion of pupils in grammar schools; 37 per cent. of secondary school pupils in the town of Slough are in grammar schools. That has a dramatic effect on education in my town. Our experience is different from that in North Yorkshire, where only a handful of children go into the grammar schools, because in Slough, two out of three children feel like failures at 11. That is the real experience of children, because their parents put so much energy into helping and supporting their children pass the 11-plus. It has a devastating effect on the year 7 curriculum in our secondary schools, on the self-esteem of a large group of children, and on the quality of education in the town that I represent.

Do not get me wrong; I believe that the schools in Slough are trying hard to do a good job—and some of them do an excellent job. However, I am concerned about the impact of the disproportionate number of grammar schools. About 16 or 17 per cent. of our year 7 pupils come into the grammar schools in Slough from outside, so many of the grammar school places are taken up by pupils coming in from outside a town that is already highly congested.

Many pupils are refugees from the system. I vividly remember that, last year, I advised the parents of twins, one of whom had just passed the 11-plus while the other had failed. That experience within a family shows us the truth about the divisions caused by the 11-plus. The family did what many parents of pupils who have just missed passing the 11-plus in my town do; they escaped from educational apartheid into the comprehensive schools of Windsor.

I have no objection to testing. I was a teacher, and I know how important testing is in developing the curriculum for children and in finding out what their skills and attainments are. However, I am worried about a system that creates inflexibility between the secondary modern and grammar schools, and does not allow for different speeds of development. It does not have the flexibility to match the curriculum to each child's growing and changing needs and abilities.

It should be up to the parents of Slough and nobody else to decide the future of their schools. There is some hocus-pocus going on among the Conservatives, and I have been the victim of what I can only call a smear campaign. One of the Conservative councillors in a nearby county has been suggesting, first, that I am leading a campaign to abolish the grammar schools in Slough.

That is not true; the only campaign that I have led in that context was for the grammar schools, the secondary modern schools and the local education authority to be united in making representations to Ministers about getting fair rules for ballots, and that neither side could use public money. The system would not then descend to include abuse of the sort that we faced in our town when we changed the age of entry into secondary education and abolished middle schools. I am pleased to say that many of the representations that we made were incorporated into the regulations.

The second suggestion that has been made is that the question on the ballot paper is misleading. The question on the ballot paper in Slough will mention the words "grammar school" three times, but it will focus on the real question, which concerns the admission policies of the schools in question.

As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said, the name of a school does not necessarily describe its character. Harrogate grammar school is a comprehensive school, and in Slough, seven so-called comprehensive schools have intakes that we would normally associate with secondary modern schools. The right question to ask is about the admission policies of the named schools.

The third lie being peddled is that parents will not be able to vote in the ballots. Let us be clear: every parent in Slough with children under school leaving age will have the right to vote in the ballot.

Finally, it has been said—we have heard it today—that the governing bodies have been banned from speaking out. Any governor can make his or her views heard, but, rightly, nobody should use public money to influence the ballot. Parents should make up their own minds. That is what I expect and want to happen in Slough.

In the meantime, I am focusing on the real issue, which is not whether we have an 11-plus or not. We should be asking, "What are you doing to make the schools in your constituency better?" The education action zone in Slough is now being launched, and I have put a huge amount of effort into persuading the Department for Education and Employment that we need that scheme.

For example, our secondary schools have real problems in recruiting and retaining excellent teachers. We need a structure for better collaboration across the 11-plus divide, so that every child in Slough can have an excellent education. The education action zone represents one step in that direction.

However, we should not get hung up on structures, on the names of schools, or on who is allowed into them. Our duty as politicians and as people who care about children's learning is to ensure that every school, whatever its entry policy, is excellent, and that all children get the best education, as they deserve. I promise the people of Slough and Members of the House that I am running that campaign and no other.

10.40 am
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on securing this debate and on his highly effective advocacy of the case for retaining grammar schools. At the risk of embarrassing the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) and doing grave injury to his future political prospects, I congratulate him too on his powerful, honourable and brave speech, which was applauded by Conservative Members.

Nowhere is the chasm between the Labour party's pre-election rhetoric and its post-election reality more eloquently illustrated than by its policy on grammar schools. On 7 February 1997, the then shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), referring to grammar schools, declared that a Labour Government would pose no threat to their continuance or to their ethos or to their quality. Following that lead, on 3 April 1997, the then Leader of the Opposition said of the existing 160 grammar schools, "Let them remain". What matters is what works", he said. "Standards, not structures", he said. A Labour Government will not destroy your grammar schools. That is my personal guarantee", he said.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There has been and always will be serious debate about the principle of selection in the education system, and if all schools in the country were of a standard of which we could be proud, there might be some point in focusing on that debate. However, schools in many areas are of such a low standard that the Secretary of State himself is deeply anxious, and to attack schools that are acknowledged to be successful is a disgraceful diversion from the proper focus of our debate.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that we will not improve the rest of our schools if we destroy the best of our schools. Why did shadow Education Ministers and the then Leader of the Opposition give those reassurances about grammar schools? They knew that grammar schools were successful beacons of excellence in our education system and they sought to assuage the concerns of those who supported those schools.

Grammar schools are renowned for their academic results, sporting prowess and cultural achievements. They have a long tradition of sending people into business, the professions, the media and public service. There are many grammar schools of outstanding calibre across the country. I shall mention only one, which is in my constituency. The Royal Latin grammar school, whose head teacher, Cecilia Galloway, provides inspirational leadership, has outstanding governors, supportive parents and motivated pupils.

The Government sought, when they were in opposition, to reassure us. What is the post-election reality? As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West pointed out, it is different from what the Government promised. First, the Government have created in the petition process a potential charter for cheats. My predecessor on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), and I have had two letters from Electoral Reform Ballot Services Ltd, dated 15 June and 28 September. Neither of those letters was remotely successful in reassuring us that there was no possibility of fraud. There is clearly a likelihood of fraud because there is no requirement for signatures to be validated.

Secondly, the electorate in stand-alone ballots and group ballots is perversely chosen. It is monstrous that parents of grammar school pupils, who have a direct interest in the outcome of the ballot and in their children's educational life chances, will not be entitled to vote.

Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West rightly pointed out and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) failed to recognise, the question is loaded against grammar schools principally because it does not make it clear that votes against grammar school status would sound the death knell of the schools and result in the abolition of grammar schools throughout the country. Fourthly, the Government have provided a one-way ratchet that facilitates the destruction of grammar schools, but does not permit their creation.

What are the likely effects of grammar schools being abolished? There are two effects of which the House should beware. The first is damage to education: lower standards, reduced choice and guaranteed disruption during the transition period. The second effect is financial cost due to the impracticality of converting schools. It is estimated that if grammar schools in Kent were scrapped, we would be faced with a £150 million bill simply for bricks and mortar, and a conservative estimate of the nationwide cost is £500 million.

Labour Members too often display a breathtaking naivety about the prospects of conversion. The director of education in Buckinghamshire has pointed out that the size and configuration of grammar schools do not readily lend them to conversion into comprehensive schools. They are full to bursting; they are built on the green belt, where there is no scope or desire for additional development, and the capital costs of reorganisation would be prohibitive. In those circumstances, it is absolute nonsense for the Government, who have emphasised the importance of standards, not structures, to interfere with the structure of some of the finest schools in the country. That is a disgrace.

The disgrace seems even greater when we reflect on another fact of which I know my right hon. and hon. Friends will take note: the campaign against grammar schools throughout the country is not spontaneous and is not conducted by well-meaning, independent-minded individuals acting alone, of their free will, against the best schools in the land. As The Sunday Times reported on 27 June, it is a carefully planned assault on grammar schools which is being aided and abetted by dozens of Labour party activists the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. As the report said, it is a centrally co-ordinated campaign by egalitarian hooligans and educational vandals. They want to destroy what exists and, as the then Leader of the Opposition said, what works, in favour of an untried and untested method that conforms to the egalitarian prejudices of Labour party members, who think that children should be used for social engineering. We believe that children have innate rights and should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Does it not stick in the gullet of my right hon. and hon. Friends, as it does in mine, that the Prime Minister—who is himself the product of privilege—is standing idly by with a grinning countenance, allowing to go to the wall prized institutions that, for generations, have provided a ladder up which bright children of modest means can climb? That is the disgrace of the Prime Minister's position. He is more interested in the internecine politics of the Labour party and in deal-making, brokering and keeping the peace than in the prospects of this country's children.

Members of the Labour party and, I regret to say, the parliamentary Labour party think that their children are a class apart and that what is all right for them is unacceptable for everybody else. I give fair warning to the Labour Members concerned—they know who they are—that they can, if they wish, lurk in the darker corners and more secluded recesses of the Palace of Westminster, but lurk, and not for very long, is all that they can do. They can run, but they cannot hide because there will be no hiding place for Labour Members who speak with forked tongue, who practise double standards, and who say one thing and do another.

Those standards might be acceptable to the Labour party, but they are unacceptable to the Conservative party and to the hundreds of thousands of parents of all political affiliations who support the grammar schools. They support them not because they are politically motivated, but because they are concerned about education, and rightly so.

Tawney, the great egalitarian socialist philosopher, said that it was important that there should be the maximum diversity of type among secondary schools. How right he was. Tony Crosland it was who declared, in unprintable language, his determination to destroy every last grammar school in England and Wales. How wrong he was, and how fortunate that he failed.

However, I say to the Minister, whose local newspaper has accused her of doing an incredible disservice to Birmingham's grammar schools, that Tawney's and Crosland's statements had one thing in common: they were honest positions. This Government's position is not. It is slippery. It is disingenuous. It is designed to cause confusion, and it is a back-door method of destroying the best schools in this country. That is wrong. We will resist it, and we will support those throughout the country—head teachers, parents and pupils—who know that their schools are successful, who resent the Government's intrusion in their affairs and who are determined to fight, fight, fight and win.

10.50 am
The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) who, whether I agree with him or not, has been assiduous in representing what he sees as the interests of his constituents. In that, at least, I support him. I fear that that will be the end of my kind words in response to his comments.

I want to start where the hon. Gentleman started. In almost his opening sentence, he said that attitudes to grammar schools tell us something about the type of education service that we want. I absolutely disagree with that; that is where we differ.

Grammar schools have become fewer in recent years. They were set up when all that this country needed to survive economically, to flourish, to compete and to win was for a few people to be educated to the highest level. The grammar school system achieved that aim exceptionally well. That is why, in years gone by, we were a nation that competed so well and succeeded against many of our European competitors and those elsewhere.

However, I must tell Opposition Members that the challenge for this nation and the education service is no longer that of providing good education for the few—the top 25 per cent. It is—

Mr. Brady

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Ms Morris

Not at the moment. The hon. Gentleman spoke for 32 minutes and squeezed out the comments of many others. Our challenge is to bring about a school system that raises standards for every child, and which ensures that 24,000 schools are good, and good enough for the hon. Gentleman's child and my child, for his constituents' children and my constituents' children.

I have to conclude that a party that chooses to use all its education debates and all its education energy in a fight to save the admissions arrangements of 162 selective schools in 29 local authorities, and which rarely utters words of concern about the rest—which are also, in some cases, the best—is a party that has not caught up with the needs and demands that are currently being placed on our country and on our education service.

Mr. Rowe


Mr. Bercow


Ms Morris

I will give way to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) when I have made progress.

That is what divides the parties. It is the Labour party—the Government—that has taken on the challenge, never taken on by any other Government, of not being content with being able to say that our system delivers the best for a few, and which is determined to deliver the best for everyone.

Mr. Rowe


Ms Morris

I shall give way when I have made this point. Anyone would suppose that there was no threat to the grammar schools—that no grammar school closed—until 2 May 1997. We know, because we have heard it often said, that Lady Thatcher was the Secretary of State for Education who closed more grammar schools than any other. In the past quarter of a century—when, for all but five years, the Conservatives were in power—the number of grammar schools fell from 809 to as few as 166. Why, in 18 years, did the Conservatives not stop the closure of those grammar schools?

Mr. Rowe


Mr. Brady


Ms Morris

Why, in 18 years, was no new grammar school opened? Where was the legislation to give parents the power to vote to open grammar schools? Where was the legislation to stop local authorities closing grammar schools? It was not there. The need to protect the admission arrangements of grammar schools is an idea hooked into because, quite honestly, the Opposition have nothing else to say about the education agenda.

Mr. Bercow

The right hon. Lady's position is fairly apparent, but may we clarify one matter beyond doubt? If she had a vote in a ballot, how would she cast it—to retain the grammar school or to abolish it? Secondly, is she prepared, on the Floor of the House today, to give an absolute and unequivocal guarantee that the stupid regulations that the Government have pushed through Parliament will not allow for widespread fraud?

Ms Morris

Of course I will give that guarantee—that the regulations passed by the House will not be subject to fraud. We based a lot of those regulations on the ballot regulations for GM schools. Interestingly, whereas the Conservative Government never made any provision to prevent the use of public money in opt-out ballots for GM schools, the Labour Government have put in a provision to prevent public money being spent in that way; and we certainly will respond to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. In the regulations that we passed on grammar school ballots, the provisions to protect public resource and to avoid fraud are far stronger than ever they were for GM ballots.

Whether we like it or not, the issue of selection has always been there and always will be. For as long as I can remember, the question whether we should select—comprehensive versus grammar—has been there. It will not go away; and if we had not passed the legislation, it would not have gone away. It has thwarted our education service for too long. It has taken our energy, our resource and our efforts, when we should have been concentrating on things that matter more. No magic wave of the wand can stop the debate.

As a Government, we had to decide. As that debate continued, whom did we want to have the say? To whom did we want to hand the reins of influence in that decision? We had three choices. We could have kept those powers to close grammar schools to ourselves—as the previous Government did—and I suspect that, with our majority, we would have got the legislation through Parliament. We could have done what the Liberal Democrats want us to do—handed the power to local education authorities. We chose neither. We chose to hand the reins of power about the future of admission arrangements for 160-odd grammar schools to the parents whose children will be affected.

Mr. Rowe


Ms Morris

I shall give way later.

I am prepared to defend our decision on two counts. First, that is where the power should be. Secondly—and more importantly—it frees leaders of education on the Government Benches to do what they should be doing: picking up the pieces and ensuring that the education service, which has been so badly neglected for the past 18 years, is fit for all our children for the millennium.

Mr. Rowe

The Minister has made a powerful case that grammar schools would probably have withered on the stem anyway, and that there were many more important things to do in the education system, yet one of the first pieces of educational legislation that the Government introduced was to create the mechanism for destroying something that she regards as almost an irrelevance. Why?

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman knows well how legislation works. I believe that the Bill that became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 was the largest education Bill that had ever been passed. It set the new framework, and the new set of relationships for schools. It was out of the way in our first year, freeing us to concentrate on other things.

In the past two years, we have focused on numeracy and literacy, where standards have risen by the biggest measurable amount ever. In each of the years since standard assessment tests began, exclusions have dropped and GCSE and A-level results have improved.

I read a comment in this morning's press by the hon. Member for Buckingham, in which he attacked the Government for vandalism of education. The biggest vandals in the education world today are those who oppose the literacy hour and the numeracy hour, which have patently raised standards for children. The biggest vandals are those who oppose performance-related promotion and the reform of the teaching profession that the Government are working on.

The biggest service that the Government can do the children of this country and their parents is not to waste our time on the future admission arrangements of 160 schools. We should leave that to the parents. The biggest service that we can do the children is to ensure that every one of them gets a good nursery education, that at 11 they can all read and write, that they go to schools that are fit to learn in, that they have teachers who are well trained and well rewarded, and that society has the highest expectations of every single one of them. That is what we are delivering, and that is where our focus will remain.

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