HC Deb 27 June 2000 vol 352 cc758-84 '.(1) The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 shall be amended as follows. (2) After section 104(3) there is inserted— "(3A) Where the Secretary of State is satisfied that within a prescribed local education authority more than four per cent. of pupils admitted to secondary schools in the year 1999–2000 were admitted to grammar schools, that local education authority shall be designated as having a selective education policy." (3) In section 106(3)(a), after "above" there is inserted "(save that where a local education authority operates a selective education policy as designated under section 104(3A), and no ballot under section 105(2)(a) has previously been conducted within that local education authority area, the request for a ballot must be made by a number of eligible parents equal to at least one per cent. of all parents falling within (1)(a) or (b) above).".'.—[Dr. Ladyman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 11—Grammar schools: retention of selective admission arrangements—

() In the School Standards and Framework Act 1998

  1. (a) in section 104 (designation of grammar schools), omit subsection (4)
  2. (b) omit sections 105 to 108 (procedure for ballots to determine retention or discontinuance of selective admission arrangements) and
  3. (c) in section 109 (proposals by governing body to and selective admission arrangements) omit subsections (3)(b) and (4).'.

Dr. Ladyman

It is probably appropriate for me to begin by declaring an interest. I live in my constituency, I am a dad and I raise my family in my constituency. What I believe is best for my children I also want to see delivered to all my constituents' children. At the moment, my constituents do not have the best form of secondary education system and I very much want to see it improved for them. They should be able to engage in debate about our secondary education system and to have a vote on whether it should continue in its current form.

The purpose of the new clause is simply this. In local education authorities in which there is nothing apart from a selective system of secondary education and when there has not previously been a ballot on the selective education policy of the local education authority, it should be necessary only to get 1 per cent. of eligible parents to sign a petition in order to have a ballot. That would make it practicable to move towards a ballot on a selective education system in areas such as Kent.

I shall provide some background to the debate for hon. Members who are not familiar with Kent. There are no comprehensive schools in Kent. We have only grammar schools and high schools. Selection for grammar schools is on the basis of the 11-plus which, in Kent, is called the Kent test. Twenty-four per cent. of children go to grammar schools, and the remaining children go to what are euphemistically called high schools. One or two schools aspire to offer a comprehensive system of education. A laudable effort, for example, is made by the Catholic Church, which tries to encourage Catholic pupils of all abilities to go to the few dedicated Catholic secondary schools. In an area in which 24 per cent. of pupils are selected at age 11 to go to grammar schools, I would argue that, in effect, it is impossible, for any school to offer a truly comprehensive system of education. The size and scale of the selection distorts the process so completely that, practically and economically, it is impossible for a school that does not have access to the 24 per cent. of brightest pupils to provide services to bright pupils.

In my constituency, and throughout my county, parents who do not believe in the 11-plus may choose for their children not to sit the test. If they make that choice, their children will not go to a comprehensive school, as there are none, but to a secondary modern school. Whatever one calls such schools they are not, as Kent county council tries to describe them, wide ability schools. They are only wide ability in so far as they serve the 76 per cent. of children who do not go to grammar school. They are secondary modern schools. Throughout Kent, it is as if the education system has been preserved in aspic since the early 1960s—as if no one has ever even thought of introducing comprehensive education.

There is no parental choice—none whatsoever. I shall go further on that subject, as part of painting the background to my amendment. Selection is not just about the 11-plus. As a result of the distorted selective education system in Kent, children are selected, first of all, according to wealth. If one is rich enough, one's children go to one of the public schools that serve the county. Children are then selected according to academic ability at 11. If they fail to get into a grammar school on that test, they are selected by postcode and, if they are lucky enough to live in a middle-class area, they go to a middle-class secondary modern provided in the area.

Some council estates in my constituency rank among the poorest in the United Kingdom, and have male unemployment approaching 60 per cent. If children happen to live in one of those poorer parts of the community, they go to a secondary modern which, effectively, is a sink school. The day that a child arrives at that school he or she will find that at least 70 per cent. of their peers arriving with them have special needs. Is it any surprise that that school then delivers poor statistics in the GCSE league tables? Sometimes, those schools are close to the bottom—indeed, sometimes even at the bottom—of the league tables, which reinforces the impression of their failure. Even though teachers in those schools are highly motivated, may add huge value to those children and be doing their very best for those kids, parents get the impression that those schools are at the bottom of the ladder, so they try to avoid them.

One of the biggest piles of constituency casework that I get is from all the parents who find that their child has been allocated one of those sink schools, even though they did not include it on their list of preferences as a school that they wished their child to attend. Someone, however, has to go to that school, and parents' first recourse on receiving the letter informing them of that is to contact their Member of Parliament to see whether there is any way of getting out of it. I am afraid that there is not, and I have to sit and explain to parents the realities of living with a system in which selective education distorts the life and educational prospects of all our children.

Mr. Brady

I am following the hon. Gentleman's speech with interest. Is it not the case that, if those schools were neighbourhood comprehensives, the same selection by postcode would happen? A neighbourhood comprehensive serving a more affluent area will tend to draw its pupils from that area, whereas one serving one of the least prosperous areas will tend to draw its pupils from that area.

Dr. Ladyman

Of course there are distortions in any education system. There are more distortions in the system than that of intellectual ability. However, if those schools were true comprehensives, had a full range of ability and a full wide syllabus for all their children, at least they would have the opportunity to raise their standards and their pupils would have aspirations higher than getting through their few years of secondary education. They would have the aspiration of trying to go on to further and higher education which, in many cases, they do not have in the distorted system that we must work with today.

One head teacher told me that the system is evil. He did not say that it is slightly less good than the other system or marginally inefficient, or that it is worth having a debate about changing it. He called the selective education system in Kent evil. He is not an apologist for the Labour Government. Indeed, this particular head teacher is one of the biggest pains in my backside. He frequently objects to funding policies, to the Secretary of State's comments and to Government policies on a range of issues. He was a pioneer of the grant-maintained system and took his school to that status when it was an option. He is not an apologist for the Labour Government, but he calls the system evil. I agree with him. I have not spoken to any head teacher of any high school in my constituency who believes that Kent's selective education system is appropriate. One or two are worried about the disruption that would follow a change in the system, but none agree fundamentally with the system.

I can tell the House that, although they will not say it in public, support for the selective system is not unanimous even among the head teachers of the grammar schools, of which there are four in my constituency. The Kent Association of All-Ability Secondary Heads includes 60 secondary school head teachers who are prepared to say publicly that the system in Kent needs to be changed.

6 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The hon. Gentleman says that a head teacher in Kent has described the education system as evil. If parents support that view, why was the local authority elected on a policy of not changing the system?

Dr. Ladyman

Frankly, it was not. We have not engaged in that debate in any depth or with any feeling. I believe that if we were to have that debate and provide the people of Kent with the facts and the figures, the local authority would be instructed to change the education system.

I am prepared to put that to the test because my new clause does not ask the Government to take away parents' right to choose. I fought the general election on a policy of leaving the choice to parents. My new clause seeks only to make it a practical possibility for parents in my constituency to make that choice. I have said publicly that when we have that debate, I will not play a politician's role in it; I will leave it to parents. I will of course have a voice as a parent, but I will stay out of the debate if other politicians do the same and leave it to parents to make their choice on objective grounds.

Mr. Bercow

In developing his argument, will the hon. Gentleman concede that he is motivated, at least in part, by the risible failure of Mr. Martin Frey and his colleagues in Kent, who in this academic year have secured only 7,000 of the 45,000 signatures that they require to trigger a ballot, which has caused them to postpone the petition, although sadly not to cancel it?

Dr. Ladyman

The hon. Gentleman is nearly correct. I shall come on to the reason why Mr. Martin Frey and his colleagues have managed to get only 7,000 signatures. Acquiring that number of signatures took a huge effort and was almost a miracle. Reaching their target of 45,000 signatures is a practical impossibility, given the rules under which they have to work. I shall come on to those rules later in my oration.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that those people have not abandoned their petition; they have simply postponed it, and they will carry it into next year. The problem that I fear as much as any other is that we will have this discussion year after year, that they will always fail to get the required number of signatures because of the practical impossibility of doing so, and that we shall never have certainty in our local system. I want rules that allow the schools to have the ballot and to get the debate out in the open so that a decision can be made, and then we will all be able to live with what follows.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

In view of the comment made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), my hon. Friend might be interested to know that a paper from Buckinghamshire county council shows that when the council had a consultation on grammar schools, it got a total of 3,644 responses. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to reflect on the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "risible" for a total that was twice as high and was reached by a private individual, not a public body.

Dr. Ladyman

My hon. Friend makes her point extremely effectively.

I turn now to the background of the new clause. If any hon. Members think that the 11-plus, which Kent calls the Kent test, is an objective test suitable for judging people's ability at 11 and determining the rest of their life, I point out that the test was changed a few years ago because not enough boys were passing and local grammar schools could not fill their boys' places. The head teacher of one of those schools came to me to lobby for the Kent test to be made easier for boys. The test had to be changed—a non-verbal reasoning test was included—and more boys are passing now. However, if the test is now fair, it must have been unfair beforehand, and generations of boys were tossed on to the educational scrap heap. If that was not the case, the test must be unfair now.

Mr. Purchase

Kent's experience of the difficulty of deciding boys' and girls' whole future at age 11 is greatly reflected in inner-city areas, such as mine, with multicultural communities. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is almost impossible to devise an objective, rational test on a one-size-fits-all basis?

Dr. Ladyman

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. May I say how much I agreed with his comments in the previous debate. I had fellow feeling for him on many of the issues that he dealt with.

I shall expand a little on what my hon. Friend has just said. Not only was the Kent test changed a few years ago to make it easier for boys, but Dover was not getting enough children through the test to fill all its grammar schools, so it introduced the Dover test. I do not know why, but fortunately for Dover, enough of its children are passing the Kent test this year to fill the town's grammar schools. However, the children who passed the Dover test are also entitled to grammar school places, and they are taking them, so people who would previously have gone to grammar schools in Dover are now being displaced to grammar schools in my constituency.

Who suffers in the end? It is the people whom the Conservative party is always championing—those who live in rural villages and towns and are furthest away from the grammar schools and therefore last on the list of the schools' admission criteria when they are ticking off which pupils they will take. This week, my desk is covered with letters from people who live in small, rural towns and villages in my constituency, such as Wingham and Minster, and who are being told that their child does not have a grammar school place because of the nonsense of the selective system which is being foisted on the whole area.

Mr. Brady

Given that the hon. Gentleman has painted a picture of chaos in school applications in his constituency, why does he believe that no one can find 20 per cent. of parents who are prepared to trigger a ballot?

Dr. Ladyman

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will deal with precisely that point in a moment because it is the thrust of the argument for considering change.

I turn now to an objective view of which system we should be following. We now have two sets of objective data about the relative merits of the comprehensive education system and the selective education system. York university identified intellectually equal cohorts of children based on their performance at age 14 in standard attainment tests and measured their progress as they went through grammar schools and comprehensive schools.

The researchers found that for the top 4 per cent. of children, there was no difference between grammar schools and comprehensives, but the remainder did better in comprehensive schools than in grammar schools. That would apply to over 80 per cent. of the children who attend grammar schools in my constituency at this moment. I can put my hand on my heart and say that none of those children would be worse off in a good comprehensive school, and 80 per cent. would get better results in a comprehensive.

If that was not enough, I have the evidence provided by the Secretary of State and by the Minister for Education and Employment in the other House, who in Lords Hansard on 15 March at column 1546 compared GCSE results for the top 24 per cent. of children in comprehensive schools with the top 24 per cent. in grammar schools, and found that the comprehensive pupils did significantly better. Objective data such as that need to be presented to parents so that they can compare selective education with the comprehensive system. We need to start that debate.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) asked why we did not succeed in getting the 45,000 signatures needed to initiate such a debate in Kent. In saying that, I have almost answered his question. Kent is taken as a huge conglomerate, and we must find 45,000 signatures—20 per cent. of all the eligible parents. It might be easier if just a petition of 45,000 parents was involved and we were given a fair crack at being able to get the data, but we must approach each school separately for the list of parents so that we can contact them. We are not allowed to collect petitions on schools premises, so we have to visit parents' homes one by one. We have to provide multiple pieces of information for every name on the petition.

Those who are experienced at collecting the signatures tell me that it takes 10 minutes for someone to fill in the form correctly even when that person has already been convinced, is being co-operative and is willing to sign. Before getting that far, people have to go to parents' houses and sit with them for 10 minutes, and probably have a cup of tea and a chat. They then have to visit the next house. All that has to be done in an academic year, and enough time has to be left to hold the debate and ballot. That is simply a practical impossibility.

With the greatest of respect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I have to concede that there has been an error of judgment. I share the blame for that error because I voted for it when the original legislation was framed. I put my hand up and say that I made the mistake as well; I did not spot how difficult the petitions would be. However, the petitions are intended for areas in which there is one grammar school in an otherwise comprehensive education system. They were designed for much smaller scale activities than those in Kent, where they are simply a practical impossibility.

I shall put some suggestions to my right hon. Friend, who shares many of my concerns about the problems that we face in Kent. We could make the rules for collecting the names on petitions much simpler, which would not require primary legislation, and would allow us to move forward. We could create a mechanism to ensure that the campaigning organisation was provided with the names of all the parents from the various schools so that its representatives did not have to visit every school separately to get all those names. We could make the logistics of collecting the petition more simple, by allowing many more names to be provided on one petition form.

We could consider how Kent is divided to find out whether it would be possible to hold the ballot at certain locations in Kent rather than across the whole county. That is not beyond the wit of man because Kent avoided going comprehensive in the first place by saying that it was a group of diverse communities that had to be treated separately, that the legislation could not be applied en masse and that schools had to be broken down and dealt with on their individual merits. Kent could say that for a couple of decades to avoid the current legislation. Why cannot we divide Kent into its communities? Some may doubt whether that can be done, but it has been done in Dover, where the Dover test serves local grammar schools.

6.15 pm

We could make the ballot a practical possibility by reducing the threshold for the petition to 1 per cent. That is the only part of my proposals that would require primary legislation, which is why new clause 9 deals with that aspect only. I strongly urge my right hon. Friend seriously to consider accepting new clause 9, which would allow us to try to achieve that much more realistic threshold. That would at least make it a practical possibility for us to campaign, and to hold the debate and the ballot. I am not talking about a political dogfight or suggesting that we should all get into our bunkers and start to close our eyes to the merits of good schools, the difficulties faced by bad schools and all other the problems that Opposition Members will certainly mention.

The subject must be debated properly, after which the decision could be taken and we could then begin to live with it in Kent. I would at least know that there was a fighting chance that I could offer my daughter the sort of education that I believe that she and all my other constituents deserve. I want the educational apartheid that exists in Kent to end and a decent, progressive comprehensive education system to be put in place so that we can start delivering results and dealing with the iniquities that face my county.

Mr. Bercow

I support new clause 11, tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and myself. When the time comes, my hon. Friends and I will certainly press it to a Division.

It may be helpful to explain at the outset that new clause 11 is the sequel to two important developments of the past few months, the first of which occurred on 14 March in the other place, when my noble Friend Baroness Blatch successfully pressed for the inclusion of amendment No. 138A, which, if I remember rightly, subsequently became new clause 98. The second of the developments to which today's proceedings are a sequel occurred on 23 May in Committee, when new clause 98 was effectively struck down and deleted from the Bill at the request of those on the Treasury Bench.

New clause 11 represents the latest instalment in a long-running saga. My starting point is that grammar schools and the selective system, where it exists, are successful. The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) advocated his case eloquently and with sincerity. I respect him for that, but I disagree with him, and he will not be surprised to learn that a copy of the Official Report containing his speech will shortly be winging its way to my long-standing friend, the admirable prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for South Thanet. I refer of course to Mr. Mark MacGregor, whom I confidently predict will replace the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Grammar schools are a success. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I regard them as beacons of excellence in our education system. They are renowned for their academic results, their sporting prowess, their cultural achievements, and, indeed, for the equipment for citizenship with which they have successfully provided their pupils for generations. However, the House need not take that from me; it can usefully take the same point from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). Sadly, he is not in his place today, but he has contributed intelligently to the public debate on the subject.

On 12 September 1999, the right hon. Gentleman wisely declared that grammar schools were the outstanding success of public education in this country. Moreover, he was joined by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), who was emboldened during an Adjournment debated initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady).

For the benefit of the House, I quote what the hon. Gentleman said: 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. I congratulated the hon. Gentleman at the time, and I reiterate those congratulations.

The Secretary of State seemed somewhat puzzled when, on an earlier set of amendments, we showed interest in the use of the expression, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." He was arguing that case in a different context, but he talked about the importance of reinforcing and supporting schools where they were doing well. Manifestly and pre-eminently, that same argument, and perhaps even the rhetoric that he deployed, are applicable to grammar schools.

It is worth noting that in that debate, the hon. Member for Wirral, South went on significantly and helpfully to add: The perpetual threat of balloting is corrosive of the sense of security of the school, its staff and pupils.—[Official Report, 20 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 371] He was absolutely right and deserves the warm admiration of all fair-minded Members.

The evidence is clear.

Mr. Hilary Benn

If the hon. Gentleman is so confident of the virtues of selection at 11, why is he afraid to let parents decide whether they want that selection through the ballot mechanism?

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman is an admirable Member of the House, but impatience is getting the better of him on this occasion. I hope that he will not hold it against me if I say that to that important point I shall in due course and with relish come, but that before I do, I want to say something about the success of grammar schools, from which I know he would not seek to divert me.

In 1999, 36 per cent. of the top 100 performing schools were grammar schools, even though they account for only 5 per cent. of the total number of secondary schools. In 1998, at GCSE level, eight of the top 10 performing local education authorities were selective education authorities. At A-level, in the same year—

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman must contain himself and demonstrate what patience he can muster in the circumstances.

In 1998, the five top performing education authorities were all selective authorities. I refer to Bournemouth, to Buckinghamshire, to Southend, to Sutton and, perhaps above all, to Trafford, which is in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West—Trafford education authority came top. That happened despite the fact that selective LEAs account for only one fifth of all LEAs. We also know, as Northern Ireland Members can readily testify, of the tremendous academic achievements of the selective system in the Province; it is consistently between 30 and 50 per cent. better than the system in other parts of the UK.

Mr. Hopkins

Is it not obvious that those education authorities are high performing because of their social composition? It is nothing to do with the education systems that they have. Would they not do even better if they had a non-selective system, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) has pointed out?

Mr. Bercow

The answer is no. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. If he studies the evidence and the social composition and make-up of those areas, he can readily be reassured that the facts disprove his prejudice.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

I will give way to the hon. Lady in due course if she is patient.

In debating the issue, we need to take account of one other important factor: the third report of the 1998–99 parliamentary Session by the Select Committee on Education and Employment, which was about highly able children. That report concluded that there was a significant weakness in the provision for highly able children in one third of maintained primary schools and in 30 per cent. of maintained secondary schools. It went on to emphasise the need for different types of schools for different categories of highly able pupils. We should therefore be aware that, when we contemplate the possibility of abolishing grammar schools and the selective system, we do so in the face of a Select Committee report that contends that we are already doing too little for the most able children.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

I will in due course.

Before the general election, what did the Labour party say on the subject of grammar schools? The House should be reminded of the words of the Secretary of State in his capacity as shadow Secretary of State on 7 February 1997. He declared that as far as grammar schools were concerned, a Labour Government posed no threat—I quote him precisely— to their continuance or to their ethos or to their quality … The then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, wrote in a letter to the electors of Wirral during the Wirral, South by-election campaign: A Labour Government will not close your grammar schools. That is my personal guarantee. He went on to say, of the grammar schools that exist, "let them remain". "Standards, not structures", he said, adding that Labour was ditching outdated ideology in favour of the principle that what counts is what works.

Manifestly, grammar schools work. Ministers cannot conceivably object to the standards attained by those schools. It must logically follow that the objection is to their structure.

Dr. Ladyman

If grammar schools work, how does the hon. Gentleman explain the university of York data, which used normalised, equal cohorts of intellectually similar students, the only difference between them being the secondary education system that they followed, and manifestly showed that comprehensives did better still?

Mr. Bercow

First, I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman's verdict. Secondly, I believe that I am right in saying that the basis on which the research was conducted was not made public at the time of the presentation of the paper. It was therefore impossible to conduct a proper intellectual debate about it. The author of the research was requested to produce the assumptions on which he was working. He refused to do so, in defiance of the normal rules of academic debate. If the hon. Gentleman on a suitable occasion wants to furnish those details to the House, as he could credibly and in more detail have done this afternoon, we could have a proper discussion about it. The evidence to which I have pointed demonstrates the continuing success of selective education authorities, including in areas where there is a substantial socio-economic mix.

I remain convinced of the merits of the selective system where it exists, although it is important to emphasise, contrary to what the Secretary of State implied earlier, that we are not advocating a selective blueprint throughout the UK. It might suit his book to allege that, but that is not the position of my hon. Friends, or the position that I take.

Dr. Starkey

After the debate, will the hon. Gentleman look at the performance statistics for schools in Milton Keynes and the rest of Buckinghamshire when they were under Tory-controlled Buckinghamshire county council, which believed in selective education, and compare those with the results now, when Milton Keynes has an education authority that does not believe in selective education? He will find that Buckinghamshire county council allowed a huge disparity in standards to build up between Milton Keynes schools and schools elsewhere in Buckinghamshire, and that since the threat of selection has been removed from Milton Keynes and we have an education authority that believes in the education of all its children, standards in all schools in Milton Keynes have vastly improved. The improvement has been at a much higher level than any improvement in the rest of Buckinghamshire.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Lady is wrong. The record of Buckinghamshire as a local education authority is outstanding. It is comparable with anywhere in the UK. The results improve consistently across the board. I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that what the hon. Lady says is entirely symptomatic of the Labour party's tendency to decry the achievement of secondary modern and high schools. I bitterly resent the way in which they seek to denigrate the achievements of those schools. I champion not only the grammar schools in the Buckinghamshire local education authority area, but the upper schools, which do an admirable job.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

6.30 pm
Mr. Bercow

I shall make a little progress with my argument and give way to the hon. Gentleman later, if time allows.

I mentioned Labour rhetoric before the election. What has happened since? Petition and ballot regulations have been put on the statute book and my right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that there are several cogent objections to those regulations. First, they constitute a one-way ratchet. They allow for the destruction of grammar schools, but they do not permit their creation. Moreover, grammar schools are the only category of schools to which the petitioning and balloting procedure is intended to apply. We are not to have petitions and ballots in relation to technology colleges, comprehensive schools, voluntary-aided schools, single-sex schools or independent schools. Grammar schools have been singled out for this treatment.

It has been emphasised many times, and I do so again, that there is scope within the petition procedure for fraud. I have said on a number of occasions—and it has not been effectively contradicted—that there is potential for cheating in the collection of signatures for the petitions. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I were not remotely reassured to be told by Electoral Reform Ballot Services last year: The checking procedures are in accordance with the ballot regulations and the terms of our contract with the Department for Education and Employment. Is that reassuring? No, it is not, when we know that the opportunity for validation of signatures is not what it should be.

Mr. Blunkett

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that? Is he or is he not making an allegation that the ballots are unfair and that civil servants in my Department seek to undermine their validity? I want an answer to that question from the hon. Gentleman, who purports to want to be a Minister.

Mr. Bercow

I am happy to answer the Secretary of State. I did not say that the petitions or the ballots so far had been subject to fraud. I am happy to repeat, however, that the scope for fraud and impersonation does exist. The Secretary of State should not affect quite such shock or seem so affronted. The point has been raised with him several times, and we have had no satisfactory response from him or from the Minister for School Standards. I stand by what I have said. I have said it many times before and I shall continue saying it until the Secretary of State is prepared to reconsider the terms of the regulations and the contract with Electoral Reform Ballot Services.

The ballots ask a loaded question. It does not refer to grammar schools, but simply says, "Are you in favour of the school or schools listed introducing admission arrangements which admit children of all abilities?" That is manifestly a motherhood-and-apple-pie question which invites an affirmative answer. The electorate who are invited to answer the question are perversely chosen by the Government. My right hon. and hon. Friends will agree that it is frankly indefensible that the parents of grammar school pupils, who themselves have a direct vested and continuing interest in the outcome of such ballots, are disfranchised by the Government's regulations in many cases.

Considerable costs are involved in sweeping away the grammar schools and the selective system. In Kent, in bricks and mortar terms alone, the cost is estimated at £150 million. For the whole country, a figure of more than £500 million seems to err on the conservative side.

Mr. Blunkett

Is it not a paradox that the amount that Kent claims it would take to alter the system is £6 million higher than the sum that it would need, according to its asset management activity, to refurbish, renew and extend existing buildings to provide a satisfactory solution to its building and construction problems? It seems that Kent is prepared to spend £6 million more on reconfiguration than it would on reorganising its existing buildings to make them fit for current pupils.

Mr. Bercow

The Secretary of State really does have a brass neck to make such a bogus debating point—to which I shall with relish reply. This is not a question of what Kent county council is prepared to spend; it is a matter of what Kent county council would be obliged to spend in order to secure a reconfiguration of the pattern of local education in that county. The Secretary of State himself has made it clear, albeit only sotto voce, that if parents choose to vote for the abolition of the existing system there will be a price tag, and the bill will have to be met at local level because the Secretary of State has no intention whatever of footing it. So it will mean crippling council tax rises for local residents—a fact that the right hon. Gentleman has been reluctant to emphasise, but which I want to underline tonight.

Why does the Secretary of State not listen to the authoritative view of the director of education in my own county of Buckinghamshire, Mr. David McGahey, who has repeatedly told him that the size and configuration of local grammar schools in Buckinghamshire mean that they would not readily lend themselves to conversion to comprehensive status? The schools are full almost to bursting, the scope for development on the green belt is minimal and the capital costs of reconstruction are prohibitive. It is no good the right hon. Gentleman consistently refusing to allow the facts to intrude upon his declared prejudices in any way, at any time and to any degree. The reality is that it would be costly—and in many cases impracticable—to secure the sort of conversion that many of his hon. Friends envisage.

Dr. Ladyman

I know that the hon. Gentleman does not deliberately try to mislead the House, so he must allow me to correct him on two points. First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely correct to say that Kent county council has said that it needs to spend £146 million on the existing system of education—only barely less than it would cost to implement a new system. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman implied that parents of pupils at grammar schools in Kent would not get a vote. That is absolutely untrue. All parents with children at feeder schools and secondary schools would get a vote.

Mr. Bercow

Let me make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, I am grateful to him for confirming that reconstruction would entail substantial additional costs. He has not denied that. Rather, he has acknowledged the truth of the charge that my hon. Friends and I have been making. Secondly, of course I am happy to confirm that in Kent, as he rightly pointed out, grammar school parents do have a vote. The burden of my criticism was directed at the procedure that applies to areas where there are stand-alone grammar schools or groups of grammar schools, where it is an undemocratic outrage that parents of children at grammar schools are not allowed to vote.

Mr. Willis

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

I shall give way just once more and then I must make some progress.

Mr. Willis

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has been most generous in giving way throughout the debate. Does he agree that it is equally an outrage that in the recent Ripon grammar school ballot, 25 per cent. of parents who were eligible to vote had children at private schools?

Mr. Bercow

I do not think that there is anything remotely outrageous about that. The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to address the subject of Ripon. He can rest assured that I shall not resist that temptation for long, but first I shall focus briefly on the arguments about educational opportunity and the threat of discrimination against people from ethnic minorities, as that is a point of great importance to the Opposition.

Thirty per cent. of pupils at Henrietta Barnet grammar school in the London Borough of Barnet are from ethnic minorities. As the former head teacher, Jane de Swiet, pointed out many months ago, if that school were to become a comprehensive, its catchment area would be based around Hampstead Garden Suburb, which has some of the most expensive housing anywhere in the United Kingdom. Such an arrangement would prevent substantial numbers of bright children from ethnic minorities and from financially modest backgrounds from benefiting from the education that is presently available to them.

Mr. Hopkins


Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)


Mr. Bercow

I have given way a great deal. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to complain about the length of speeches. He cannot have it both ways, and I am being as fair as I can.

My second example is the Queen Elizabeth school for boys in the same borough, where 32 per cent. of the pupils speak English as a second language. Let us make no mistake about it; if those schools became comprehensives, their catchment areas would effectively deprive large numbers of bright children without financial means from benefiting from the sort of education that they currently receive.

A further objection—as if the objections were not manifold already—is that if grammar schools are scrapped on a significant scale, the effect will simply be to increase the size of the private sector. In common with my right hon. and hon. Friends, I strongly support the right of parents to spend their post-tax income as they wish, and that has always been the Conservative position. However, would not it be the cruellest irony if, in the year 2000 under a Labour Government who spout the mantra of support for the many and not the few, the private sector were to expand, not on account of its intrinsic merits but because of the destruction of the grammar schools? That would be wrong, it could not be defended, and we should not allow it to happen.

Under present legislation, the sword of Damocles hangs over the remaining 164 grammar schools year after year. There is provision for a moratorium on further ballots in the event of an unsuccessful ballot, such as that in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), but nothing prevents those who pursue a failed petition one year from embarking on another the next. That is wrong. It produces the lack of security that was rightly, eloquently and bravely bemoaned by the hon. Member for Wirral, South in last year's debate, and the Conservatives deplore that state of affairs.

Interestingly, we have heard little in this debate about what grammar schools themselves think—but we have bothered to discover that by conducting a survey of the 164 grammar school head teachers, two thirds of whom responded. Some 91.8 per cent. said that an end to selection would cause extreme disruption to local education, and 86.8 per cent. said that it would have serious implications for bright kids. Some 81.8 per cent. said that despite the controversy over the continuation of grammar schools and the insecurity that many of them feel, demand for places at those institutions has continued to rise, and 74.5 per cent. said that their schools enjoy good relations with neighbouring secondary schools.

Mr. Beggs

Did any of the school principals who responded describe the system of selection as evil?

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation, upon which I shall reflect. I respect the experience that he brings to these debates.

We wondered whether, following the Ripon ballot which was a triumph for the patient and persistent diplomacy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, the Government might have changed their stance. The signals have been confusing. First, in the immediate aftermath of that triumph of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues, the Secretary of State said: Arguments about selection are a past agenda. I am not hunting grammar schools. However, we should beware of reading too much into such statements. At almost the same time, we discovered that the Secretary of State was cited in support of a press release issued by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), who is doing her best to whip up support for a petition and hostility to grammar schools in the borough of Trafford. As if that were not bad enough, we had the decision of the Standing Committee on 23 May—

Mr. Brady

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because I would not wish him to miss an important detail. In the letter issued to all members of the Labour party in Trafford, not only is the Secretary of State claimed to oppose grammar schools and to seek their abolition, but so is the Prime Minister, which is entirely contrary to the promises that he made in Wirral, South shortly before the general election.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend is simply pointing out that the Prime Minister is a chameleon. His convictions on a Monday differ from those he holds on a Wednesday, which differ from those he holds on a Friday. He is all over the place and subscribes to no fixed principles or philosophy.

We know that several Labour Members—the hon. Members for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane), for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) and, apparently, for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman)—want to up the ante and increase the pressure for the destruction of grammar schools. This year alone has seen eight petitions circulating in various parts of the country.

Mr. Chaytor

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

No. I am coming to a conclusion and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier in this on-going debate—at the start of the last century—that great socialist philosopher Tawney said that it was important to have the maximum possible diversity of type among secondary schools. Tony Crosland, in language that I could not repeat on the Floor of the House without severe rebuke, declared that if it was the last thing he did, he would destroy every grammar school in England and Wales. Those positions have honesty in common. They are straightforward and defensible positions. The Government's position—seeking the abolition of grammar schools through the back door—is duplicitous and mean-minded, and I strongly deplore it.

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The regulations are spiteful and vindictive. They set parent against parent, governor against governor, teacher against teacher and even, potentially, pupil against pupil. Thousands of hours have been wasted on the petitions and the ballot campaigns, and no doubt the Government would like to see even more time wasted. The Conservatives will fight, fight and fight again to champion those great institutions and to vanquish those who would destroy them.

Dr. Starkey

I do not support new clause 11, and I shall cite the example of Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire. In that regard, I am grateful to someone who passed on to me the useful agenda and report of the meeting of Buckinghamshire county council on 17 February 1995, headed "A grammar school for Milton Keynes? Outcome of public consultations".

The new clause shows the limits of the Conservatives' commitment to parental choice and democracy. They are keen on local communities expressing their view only when it coincides with the Conservatives' view, and I shall give the example of what happened when the Conservatives were in power in Buckinghamshire. Hon. Members will be aware that Milton Keynes is a special place. It is a growing community and still in the process of an extensive school building programme. During the 1990s, when the area was under Buckinghamshire county council control, it was proposed that the next new secondary school should be a grammar school, not a comprehensive. Not unnaturally, that proposal involved heated public debate over some considerable time. The proposed grammar school would have been highly selective and likely to have taken only one in 20 local children. It would also have taken substantial funding away from all the existing secondary schools in Milton Keynes.

The county council was involved in public consultations and, in January 1995, the results of one of them was revealed to the council. The parental consultation demonstrated that 59 per cent. were against the grammar school proposal and 39 per cent. were in favour. The proposal that the new school should be a grammar school was opposed by all the other existing secondary schools and primary schools which responded. The proposal was also opposed by the then Milton Keynes borough council and by three out of the four parish councils that responded, not to mention the Roman Catholic diocese, which had invested in a secondary school in Milton Keynes on the understanding that it would be part of a comprehensive system.

Despite those overwhelming indications of public feeling, Buckinghamshire county council decided to ignore that response and to make the new school a grammar school. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—who was not active in Buckinghamshire at the time—made a point about the danger of repeated ballots, but Buckinghamshire county council held three ballots on the proposals because it did not like the answers it got the first and second time. Unfortunately for the council, the third ballot got the same answer—a majority of parents were not in favour of a grammar school. The Conservatives on Buckinghamshire county council were not against repeated ballots. They simply hoped that, by going on and on, they might change the public's view. They did not. When they failed to change the view of the public, they simply ignored it.

Mr. Brady

Is not the process that the hon. Lady is describing somewhat analogous to what the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) is seeking to do with his amendments? Recognising that he cannot get the 20 per cent. threshold, he wants to cut it to 1 per cent.

Dr. Starkey

My hon. Friend is asking about the threshold of a ballot, and I agree that it has been set impossibly high so that it is not possible to get a public consultation. Buckinghamshire county council held a consultation, ignored the results and then had repeated consultation. During this time, the secondary school—which should have gone ahead—was kept on ice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) and I have been well aware of the consequences of that decision for the whole school system in Milton Keynes, where a much needed secondary school was held up for a considerable time because of the determination of Buckinghamshire county council to foist a selective system on the people of Milton Keynes, despite their repeatedly expressed view that they did not want it.

Fortunately, the attempt by Buckinghamshire county council to force the system on people was frustrated by the determined efforts of the Milton Keynes council, which is now the education authority with responsibility for schools. Thanks to the council and the Government, we now have a new comprehensive school that is meeting the needs of pupils in the part of Milton Keynes that is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East.

In my intervention on the hon. Member for Buckingham, I said that the consequence for the parents and children of Milton Keynes of the removal, once and for all, of the sterile debate about selection is that we now have an education authority that has concentrated on the needs of all the children and schools of Milton Keynes. In the short time it has been in control, the authority has overseen a substantial improvement in standards across the whole ability range: markedly so for boys. There has been a substantial improvement in the level of achievement in comprehensive schools. I am confident that that improvement in standards will continue.

That vindicates the expressed view of the people of Milton Keynes that what they wanted were excellent schools for all their children and not the distorted debate that Buckinghamshire county council was attempting to push on them. The council's action exemplifies the view—one that is held, certainly, by the hon. Member for Buckingham—that the way to improve education is to push resources into a small number of schools for which we select the best pupils. Not unnaturally, those schools will turn out good results. It is as if we were to select on the basis of the height of the children and then be surprised that, in selective schools, the average height of pupils was higher than elsewhere.

The amendment to which the hon. Member for Buckingham spoke is a blatant attempt to ensure that parental choice cannot be operated to express a view that selective education is divisive and does not provide a good education for all children. I do not believe that it even provides good education for those children who are often put into narrowly academic schools where they are unable to fulfil their full potential across a range of activities and where they are channelled into a narrow sort of education.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

This has been a wide-ranging debate which, in many respects, has concerned the very principles of selective as against comprehensive education. I am unique in the House, in that there has been a ballot in my constituency. I wish to speak from experience, rather than from a theoretical position.

I say to the Secretary of State that Ripon college—the city school, as it was; formerly a secondary modern—will, in the next academic year, benefit from its technology status. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that award, which was well merited. He will be interested and pleased to know that, recently, the school received two awards for excellence in teaching, demonstrating the commitment of the school to continue to improve standards. He will be pleased to know also that the co-operation with the grammar school—promised at the time of the ballot—is being pursued. We intend that that partnership—formed in the heat of battle, if I can put it in those slightly melodramatic terms—will continue now that, for the moment, the battle is over. I intend to make sure that those important promises are kept.

I wish to refer to the circumstances in which the ballot took place and how it took place, as they illustrate the difficulties of a Bill that the Government are defending but which has been so roundly attacked by Labour Members today. In my constituency, the electorate was incomplete and, frankly, arbitrary. First, the electorate was confined to feeder schools which had sent five children to the grammar school over the previous three years. However, if the junior school in question had a separate infants department, children at the infants school did not count towards the ballot. If the school was integrated, the children did count. Parents would find themselves in identical situations in different junior schools in Ripon, but some were disfranchised.

Secondly, the parents of both secondary schools were denied the franchise. I would never suggest that only the parents of those children at the grammar school should have the vote. It is legitimate that the parents of the children at all the secondary schools should have the vote. However, they did not. We had the arbitrary situation that a parent in Ripon with a child in the last year at one of the feeder primary schools had a vote. However, a parent with a child in the first year of either the college or the grammar school—where there is an expectation that that child will spend between five and seven years at the school, right through to university entrance—was denied the vote. I regard that as an arbitrary definition of the electorate.

The problem with the Bill is that the question is incomplete. The question does not ask the electorate, however it is defined, to vote on a particular scheme of reorganisation. The electorate and parents are canny, and want to know what they are voting for. They want to know where the beef is. They do not want just a theoretical debate about education.

When North Yorkshire education authority—which behaved entirely properly throughout this matter—pointed out to parents that a vote for change did not necessarily mean that a single comprehensive school would be created in Ripon, the parents said that that meant that they were voting for the unknown. They were not voting for a particular proposal whose meaning they understood. It was not clear what the organisation would entail.

Technically, the ballot was about admissions to the grammar school, and the only question on the ballot paper was a technical one. The question that that opened up—what sort of education we would get if there were a vote for change—was not answered. That was left to the local authority. When the authority put forward its answer in the event of a yes result, the electorate was not consulted on its practical shape.

I reiterate the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow): the solution in Ripon is only temporary. In five years, those concerned can come back to the matter. It is difficult to manage and run a school knowing that that possibility is constantly looming.

If they want a definitive solution, the Government could adopt reasonable procedures that would satisfy their own Back Benchers. First, they should require every local authority with selective schools to set out a scheme of reorganisation—except where ballots have taken place already, as the principle of double jeopardy should be maintained. Those local authorities should set out not the principles of reorganisation but how they would reorganise their schools on a comprehensive basis. That would mean that parents knew what they were voting for.

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The Government should then issue an undertaking that, if the scheme necessitated further capital expenditure, they would provide it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said, it is clear that funding would not be available for capital expenditure consequent on reorganisation. If the Government want to give parents a real choice, on the famous level playing field, they must demonstrate that parents will not, by their vote, penalise themselves or their children in terms of funding.

Finally, there would be a ballot of eligible parents. For stand-alone schools, parents of all pupils at both secondary and primary schools would participate. Where the present whole-LEA system of education obtains, the ballot would be much wider and would therefore be held broadly in accordance with the principles that have been set out. However, when that decision has been taken, that would be the end of the process. There would be none of the constant returning to the old argument that has been described already in this debate.

In this Chamber, hon. Members have made it clear that they are fed up with the argument about structure and are more interested in performance, and I agree with much of what the Secretary of State has to say in that regard. He has stated that what matters in schools is individual performance, and he has stressed the importance of head teachers. I echo what the right hon. Gentleman has said, with authority, about the sheer difficulty of running some inner-city schools, where teachers have to combine teaching with being police officers and social workers. Their role in loco parentis is the greater because, to be blunt, children often come from deeply inadequate backgrounds.

The House should focus on those difficulties, so it is important that a term be set to the current debate. In that way, we could take the matter forward: parents would be able to make a definitive choice, and schools would finally know where they stood.

I believe that the Government need to be got off the hook over this problem. They have proposed a scheme with the wonderful advantage that both sides of the argument believe that the ballot is rigged. That is quite an achievement, and it happened with the ballot in my constituency.

I must pay tribute to the Secretary of State again, as he gave a judicious and balanced response when he was called upon to adjudicate the complaints. No reasonable person could have objected to his decision. However, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) showed that he thinks that the scheme does not work effectively. He excoriated the scheme, before announcing—somewhat curiously—that he intended to take no part in any ballot in his constituency that might result.

Dr. Ladyman

May I clarify that I did not say that I would not vote in the ballot? I simply said that I would not use my position as a politician to make the ballot a political one. In fact, I rather admired the slightly detached approach to the ballot process displayed by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Curry

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he would not want to make the ballot party political, I would certainly agree, as I sought to exclude that possibility from the ballot in my constituency. However, politics goes far beyond parties, and this ballot process is intensely political. It is one of those few experiments in which ballot papers were delivered to doorsteps. Even then, the turnout of only 70 per cent. could have tempted me to an entirely unauthorised digression on local government election turnouts, on which I do not intend to embark in this debate.

As I said, the Government need to be let off the hook with regard to the scheme. In the next academic year, as we approach a general election, I look forward to watching Ministers and Labour activists campaigning through Daily Mail territory and encouraging parents to hold ballots on the future of their grammar schools. I have a feeling that the word may go out, quietly, that the Government are not too anxious to incite enemy troops at this particular time.

I understand that the Government wanted to find a solution to this problem, but their solution involves a formula that is so provisional and so unsatisfactory that virtually no one thinks it sustainable. I suspect that the Secretary of State will argue otherwise, and I said earlier that I am in a relatively comfortable position, as the ballot in my constituency has already been held. However, there is a case for a close examination of the system that has been set up, so that parents can have a genuine choice.

The Government must ensure that the extent of the franchise should not be open to dispute and that the question is honestly and fully put. A definitive result would mean that everyone would know where they stood, and we would all be able to move on and deal with a much more pressing agenda.

Mr. Chaytor

I rise to oppose new clause 11, moved by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), and to support new clause 9, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman).

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Buckingham spoke for precisely 30 minutes about the selective system, but he focused entirely on grammar schools. Why did he ignore the 75 per cent. of children who fail the test at 11 and are deselected? The hon. Gentleman should answer that question when he speaks on the matter again, as should all Conservative Members. They try to define selection entirely in terms of grammar schools, even though most children in the selective system are not in grammar schools. The Conservative party must address that issue.

The hon. Member for Buckingham must answer another question. If he were to have children—God forbid, some might say—would he exercise his freedom of choice and send them to a secondary modern school? I look forward to his answer.

Mr. Bercow

The happy event to which the hon. Gentleman alludes has not yet occurred, and I accept that it might well not do so. I shall have to wait for events to take their natural course. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I should be very happy for children of mine to go to a secondary high school in a number of the selective areas to which I have referred.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong: I celebrated the achievements of the grammar but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) will know, I pointed also to the success of the high schools.

There it is: a straight question from one politician gets a straight answer in the affirmative from another.

Mr. Chaytor

I look forward to the proof of that. If the hon. Gentleman were to act as he says he would, it would be a record. I think that he would be the only Opposition Member who had ever chosen to send a child to a secondary modern school. It would be a remarkable event, and I will hold him to his promise.

The hon. Member for Buckingham based his argument on the assumption that the evidence is that grammar schools perform better than other schools. He dismissed the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet regarding the recent research by York university, and the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) about what happened in Milton Keynes. He insisted that grammar schools perform better.

Unfortunately, even if that was true at some point in the past, it is true no longer. I refer the hon. Member for Buckingham to the written answer that I received on 25 May from my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards. It showed that the top 25 per cent. of children in grammar schools and secondary modern schools differed in level of achievement by only about 5 percentage points.

The figures show that 100 per cent. of that top 25 per cent. in comprehensive schools obtained five GCSE passes at A to C grades. That may not be the ideal benchmark, but it is the one normally used. By contrast, 96.4 per cent. of children in that ability range in selective schools achieved that success.

Our comprehensive system has developed and improved over the years. The figures show that children in the top 25 per cent. in the ability range perform better in comprehensive schools than in selective schools.

Mr. Brady

Will the hon. Gentleman say where those top performing comprehensive schools are—in the most affluent areas, or the poorest ones?

Mr. Chaytor

The figures that I gave apply to comprehensive schools across the country that happen to have children from the top 25 per cent. of the ability range. Their geographical location is irrelevant. Conservative Members, newspaper editors and television pundits talk about the failure of comprehensive schools in inner cities, but it must be remembered that there is not a single comprehensive school in any inner city in the United Kingdom. Every school in the inner city has been selected once, twice, or even three or four times. There is no such thing as a genuinely comprehensive school in our inner cities because, in the vast majority of cases, those schools have been so heavily creamed that even though their curriculum may be available to children of all ability, their intake does not reflect the full span of the ability range.

Mr. Hopkins

On the previous point, does my hon. Friend agree that one problem with the selective system is that children who do not pass the 11-plus examination, or whatever one might call it, become alienated from education; therefore, across the system as a whole, such children perform less well on average? When children are in comprehensive schools, they are encouraged rather than discouraged.

Mr. Chaytor

That is absolutely right. If we contrast areas that have successively reorganised along comprehensive lines with those that have retained selection, comparing areas like for like in terms of their socio-economic status, that will prove to be the case.

I see the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) shaking his head and I am glad that he is doing so, as it conveniently brings me to my next argument. He made the sweeping statement that he represents the best performing local authority in the north-west—Trafford, which is an authority that I know reasonably well. I am not familiar with the performance of all the local authorities in that area, but I am familiar with that of authorities in Greater Manchester, where our constituencies are located.

If we compare selective Trafford with comprehensive Bury, on whatever indicator that the hon. Gentleman chooses to provide, we will find that there is, at worst, no difference and, in most cases, a significant improvement in the schools in Bury. Let us consider, for example, the performance at key stage 2 in primary schools: Bury's comprehensive primary schools outperform the primary schools in Trafford. If we take performance at key stage 4, or the number of children who obtain five A to Cs at GCSE, the most recent results show a negligible difference: 55 per cent. in Bury and 55 point something per cent. in Trafford. Consider the number of children who get a single GCSE. This is the most interesting result, as it is where the bulk of the population is at, and the proportion of children who get A to Gs in comprehensive Bury vastly exceeds those achieving that score in selective Trafford.

The most significant figure is that for the participation rate beyond 16—it is what this Bill is about—where selective Trafford performs not only far worse than comprehensive Bury, but far worse than many other districts in Greater Manchester and throughout the north-west—districts that do not have the enormous social advantages of Trafford.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet has performed a service to the House in his careful dissection of the weaknesses of the selective system in Kent and the impact that that has on the development of the potential of children, of the divisive nature of the system as it impacts on communities, and of its sheer inefficiency. He also performed a service by drawing attention to some aspects of the existing regulations for the ballots in selective areas that must be reconsidered. He advanced a significant argument in favour of one sort of change to the existing ballot. Other changes need to be reconsidered. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) also argued constructively about the way in which the system operates, in particular in the area that he represents.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take the time—I know that he will keep the matter under consideration—to reconsider the way in which the ballot for selective systems operates. It is not a question of opposing selection out of dogma or ideology. My objection to selection by ability at 11—there are other forms, which I do not oppose—is entirely based on the evidence and the results. The fact is that across the board, like for like, the performance of children in comprehensive schools and systems is far better than that of children in selective schools and systems.

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Mr. Brady

I shall be brief, but some of the arguments that have been advanced in the debate, in particular those in the previous contribution from the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), need to be challenged. It would be deeply boring for the House if the debate degenerated into a ding-dong between Bury and Trafford and who has the best results, so I will not go too far down that road—but the hon. Gentleman should look at the performance in Trafford between key stages 2 and 3.

An article in The Times Educational Supplement last year demonstrated that the authority had one of the best improvements between those stages in the country. That is because something happens between primary school level—

Mr. Chaytor

I will tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what happens between key stages 2 and 3: a large number of children leave Trafford at 11 to avoid the secondary modern schools and an equally large number come in at 11 from surrounding affluent districts to take advantage of what they perceive to be the value of Trafford's grammar schools.

Mr. Brady

The hon. Gentleman can pursue his fictions if he wishes. There is a traffic in and out of Trafford, not least across the boundary from the Manchester local authority area, which is, of course, Labour controlled, and is less affluent than the areas in my constituency to which children come. They come across the boundary not because of the affluence of their parental background, but because they are seeking a better standard of education, and they are fortunate to be able to obtain it.

The improvement between key stages 2 and 3, which is one of the best in the country, is because of the quality of the schools—not merely the grammar schools, but the high schools too. I have talked often in the House about the quality of the secondary modern high schools in my constituency and the Secretary of State has acknowledged it. Ashton-on-Mersey is a beacon school. Children in my constituency are not consigned to failure if they do not go to a grammar school; they go to a beacon school. Now, they may also go to a technology college, as we have one coming on stream. It is a question of the quality of the system as a whole, and it delivers.

The hon. Member for Bury, North can say what he likes about performance in Bury. I very much hope that the schools there are excellent and I congratulate him on the results that they achieve. However, he cannot say that the borough of Trafford is universally affluent. Let us compare like for like. Trafford has 18.9 per cent. free school meals. A comparable authority, such as Kirklees, which has about 18.5 per cent., comes 78th in the league table of local education authority performance, whereas Trafford always comes towards the top.

We can dispute these matters day in and day out and we have had numerous opportunities in this Parliament to do so. The crucial question is not whether hon. Members believe one set of statistics or another for the performance of selective schools; it is whether parents believe in the performance of the selective system. That is why I was dumbfounded and disappointed to hear the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) propose his amendment, the basis of which was that the Government had introduced a rigged balloting system in which, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), the question is inappropriate in many areas where there are stand-alone grammar schools as the electorate is manifestly unfair. I do not object if Labour Members have a passionate, ideological objection to grammar school and selective education: in that case, they are right to state that view. However, if after a debate that has lasted 20 years in Kent, as it has in Trafford, they still cannot persuade the 20 per cent. of parents necessary to sign their petition to trigger a ballot, it is not acceptable for them to come back to the House and say that they cannot do it under the rules introduced two years ago so please may they change the rules because they have failed.

I will not compare the hon. Member for South Thanet, who seems to be a perfectly charming man in most respects, with President Mugabe in any other respect, but the hon. Gentleman's disregard for the democratic process in this matter is worthy of the situation with President Mugabe. People are saying, "We did not win. If we do not win under the current electoral process, we will change it and do it differently. May we please have new rules?" Surely not.

I happen to believe that even if the hon. Gentleman were to have his way and the Secretary of State were to buckle to pressure from the Benches behind him and make it easier to secure ballots on the future of selective education where it exists, we would find in Trafford, in the Wirral, in Buckingham and in Kent—as we did in Ripon, where it has been tried—that the vast majority of parents have the good sense to recognise good schools and to want to defend them, and that they put in practice what the Secretary of State puts into words. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Mr. Blunkett

I shall be brief. I want to place on the record once and for all that Labour Members think that the 11-plus is an anachronism. It will be an even greater anachronism when we have raised standards in primary schools sufficiently to make a nonsense of selecting 25 per cent. of children on the basis of a test of their mathematics and English ability, with or without verbal or non-verbal reasoning tests.

The 11-plus will be an anachronism because actually it is possible to provide diversity in the secondary school system. both within and across schools, in a way that develops the talents of the gifted, provides support for those with special needs and allows those who are good at a particular subject to flourish but does not penalise those who, at a particular age and stage of education, have not managed to jump through a particular hoop.

If we can manage that, we shall have a world-class education system that prepares people for the future—one that demands not that we have an elite composed of a small number of people, educated to a high level in schools that are separated out, but that the majority of people are able to develop their talents to the full and contribute to a knowledge economy that can compete with the best in the world. Everywhere else, there is an end to dogma. Everywhere I go, whether in Europe or in China, which I visited two weeks ago, there is a desire—a commitment—to provide excellence for everyone, to develop children's talents and to enable children to flourish.

Had I had my time again over the last three years, I would have picked up what the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) alluded to tonight, so let me put that on the record. First, I believe that the coming together of the grammar school and the college, as it now is, is an extremely good development: the combining of the work of the governing bodies and the ability to interchange children across the schools is an excellent development. Where grammar schools and secondary modern schools are close enough together to make that a possibility I, in the time that is left to me as Secretary of State, will do everything I can to encourage them to combine, to show once and for all what a nonsense it was to separate out children at 11.

If we can achieve that in those areas, we can do a service to local people because the practice of separating out children at 11 and the argument that has taken place tonight illustrate the fact that, in this country, we cling to the past. We invent a structure and a system and cling to it as though that were the determinant of success; whereas the teaching in the school, the nurturing of the individual and the tailoring of education to meet that individual's needs are what is required. Therefore, I take the challenge by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon head on. I do not agree with him about the detail of the ballot in relation to giving a vote to the parents of those who have already entered secondary school, because in this case the matter to be decided is not the abolition of a school but a change in the admissions process.

There was a problem in the introduction of comprehensive education, in that we allowed schools that excelled—that had excellence—to deteriorate. I have one in my constituency. It was the only grammar school in the north of Sheffield, with a population of 250,000. It was for boys. It deteriorated; it fell apart. It was never and has not been since, until very recently, a comprehensive school. It is pulling itself up by its bootstraps. I use that illustration only to show that we can learn lessons from the past, but the issue for us all tonight is to move forward to the future.

I found many of the other lines of argument that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon pursued very interesting. I say to him, and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), that we should seriously consider whether there are anomalies that should be examined. I shall return to that subject. The interesting argument about Buckinghamshire was important, and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) put it very well. I thought that the intellectual argument that the predecessor of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) used to make was very entertaining. The trouble is that intellectual entertainment is irrelevant to the needs of individual children.

The excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet was from the heart. It was about the dilemma of parents and the consequences for children. We should take very seriously the heartfelt cry that he made, as a parent as well as a politician representing the area. He spoke of the silly nonsense of a Dover test versus a Kent test—but with the channel tunnel, I was wondering whether there might be a Calais test, which would override both.

My hon. Friend made interesting arguments about the possibility of dissecting the county, as a previous Conservative-controlled Kent county council did when it suited it. I believe that it will be difficult to respond positively on that theme. The idea is intellectually possible, but looks very difficult in practice, despite the anomaly of the Dover test and the nonsense that results from it, which my hon. Friend rightly outlined. It is even more impossible to change the 20 per cent. threshold.

It is equally impossible to conceive of starting a process of allowing parents to ballot, holding one ballot in one area and then deciding to abandon ballots altogether, which is what the Conservatives are proposing. As Baroness Blackstone rightly put it, that would be rather like holding a by-election to determine a general election. I am sure that, after the Romsey by-election, the Liberal Democrats would consider that to be a wonderful idea. Perhaps the Opposition would not find it quite as attractive, although the idea has points in its favour.

Mr. Purchase


Mr. Blunkett

On the strength of the arguments that are being made, now that we have had the Tottenham by-election we need not bother with a general election. We obviously do, and I will stand by that. It is nonsense to suggest that, having embarked on a system, we abandon it—not least because it removes all parental choice. Neither parents nor anyone else could ever again change the system of selection and the admissions process in those schools that are currently designated grammar schools. That would be an intellectual and practical nonsense.

However, there are clearly technical difficulties in areas where a ballot is held throughout an authority. Such problems were experienced in Kent, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet outlined. I think that I am right in saying that 45,959 votes were required—an enormous challenge, by anyone's calculations.

In areas such as Kent and Trafford, where a ballot process is still in existence with the current threshold, anomalies have been highlighted. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon mentioned some of them. I am prepared to take a look at those detailed technical requirements as they relate to the development of the ballot process. However, what I cannot do is change the threshold for the ballot. I am not prepared to prevent parents having the opportunity to ballot.

7.30 pm

We embarked on the process five years ago—it is five years to the week since we published the document outlining it, and indicated that we would give parents the right to choose. Five years later, we are still debating those issues, but the ballots will go ahead. The debate is important; it matters deeply to children. It matters to my colleagues in the House and to many people outside. We should always treat the debate with care and try to respond where we can.

However, we must be honest with one another; none of us can allow the issue of selection and grammar schools to divert us and to dislocate the process in which we are engaged—raising standards for all children and ensuring that we give to the many what was, in the past, available only to the few. We are not returning to the debates of the past; we shall not allow the media or anyone else to divert us from the course we have set. We shall give children in our schools the decent education they deserve. That is why we should reject the new clause.

Dr. Ladyman

By leave of the House, I will answer my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As my right hon. and hon. Friends are flooding into the Chamber, it is clear to me that, if I were to push new clause 9 to a vote, it would be carried. However, I must accept that the Conservatives and their sympathisers in the House of Lords would certainly throw out the new clause—and the Bill with it. The Bill deals with important issues.

Given that I want no more and no less than for parents in my constituency to be able to hold a ballot in which the facts can be considered objectively, free from party politicking, and to make their decision about the future of selective education, my best chance of achieving that is to take the Secretary of State's kind offer to the bank. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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