HC Deb 17 February 2000 vol 344 cc1097-8
8. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

If he will make a statement on selection in schools. [109137]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

The Government set out their approach to selection in schools in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. We want an education system that benefits the many, not the few, and we want all children in all schools to receive good-quality education.

Mr. O'Brien

Selection also relates, by definition, to special needs, and the Prime Minister said, during the 1997 election campaign: We will not close good schools just on financial grounds. This is the first opportunity I have had to condemn outright the Secretary of State's decision to close Brook Farm school in my constituency—on financial grounds—causing real distress to the staff, pupils and parents of that very special school.

In relation to selection generally, on what basis did the Government decide that a mere 10 parents are sufficient to appeal to the schools adjudicator to rule against the admission policies and arrangements of a local education authority?

Ms Morris

On the first of those two supplementary questions, I was fortunate enough to meet some of the representatives from the school to which the hon. Gentleman referred, who put forward a powerful case, and I understood the strength of their feelings. Decisions about the planning of special needs places are never easy and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered all the evidence that he had before him. There is bound to be a need to look at the provision of special needs places at certain times and, given the local authority reorganisation that has taken place in the hon. Gentleman's area, it was appropriate to make the difficult decisions that have to be made. My right hon. Friend is confident that the children will continue to receive good-quality education, and that must always be what guides us.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's second supplementary question, I cannot see why he would argue against giving parents the right to have their concerns considered by a third party.

Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

What conclusions does my right hon. Friend draw from the fact that in Trafford, where we have a wholly selective education system, one in three secondary-age pupils goes to a grammar school, whereas only one in 10 of those on free school meals does so and only one in 20 of those with special educational needs does so?

Ms Morris

I conclude that more children who receive free school meals do not go to grammar schools. The point that my hon. Friend makes is interesting, but—although the statistics are right—we need to keep focused on the real challenge, which is to have high expectations of every child and to have a school system that values them. To give children on free school meals, and all the others, the best possible start in life, we must ensure there are good-quality teachers in well-equipped classrooms in schools that are ready to face the new century. With respect, the issue is not the structure but what is happening in the classroom.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) was grossly unsatisfactory. Why should unelected schools adjudicators, such as the Secretary of State's Sheffield socialist chum, the Rev. Dr. Alan Billings, be able to ride roughshod over the wishes of individual schools and elected education authorities simply because 10 local malcontents demand it? Given that a string of Labour Members of Parliament send their children to grammar schools but deny that other parents have the right to do the same, is it not now abundantly clear that Labour's message today is what it has always been—do as we say, not as we do?

Ms Morris

That was one of the most interesting policy announcements made this Question Time—that the new Tory word for parents is "malcontents". I think that those "malcontents" are some of the most important people in the education service. It is crucial that we seek every opportunity to give parents a role in expressing a view about their children's education. It is clear from the hon. Gentleman's question that, were he ever to come to government, he would act to remove that power from parents. This Government want to empower parents, in this and other matters.