HC Deb 09 January 2003 vol 397 cc297-9
1. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills how many grammar schools exist in England and Wales; and what the number was a year ago. [89206]

9. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills what plans he has for reviewing standards in LEA areas with selective secondary education systems. [89215]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

There are 164 maintained grammar schools in England—the same number as one year ago. Wales has none. We continue to look at ways to support an increase in standards in schools in all local education authorities. That is an important matter for local education authorities to consider in their own local circumstances, and reach conclusions on how standards can best be improved. The House may be interested to know that a couple of months ago I asked Ofsted to send me a paper on the educational standards in the local education authority of Kent. I am considering that paper now.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Is the Secretary of State aware that whereas the grammar schools felt more secure than for many years as a result of the policy initiatives of his predecessor, they are just a little worried that he might not be quite so positive about the matter? Before he contemplates changes, would he at least accept that grammar schools provide a unique opportunity for able children from working-class homes? Will he pay a visit to Southend on Sea, where our four grammar schools were in the top 100 achievers in the whole of England and Wales in the A-level results, and where, despite this, we find that the other schools performed extremely well?

Mr. Clarke

I know that this has been a matter of concern to the hon. Gentleman for some time. The assurance that I can give him is that my fundamental focus, and that of the Government, is on pursuing the best possible educational standards in every part of the country for every pupil in every way that they operate. That is the approach that we will follow. Grammar schools can be confident that there will be no ideological attack from me or my party on these matters. They can also be confident that we will look carefully at the educational standards for the whole population in each of the areas that they serve.

Dr. Ladyman

I was extremely encouraged, both by my right hon. Friend's answer today and by his comments to the Select Committee. Does he agree that we must judge the matter on the facts? The facts as gathered by people such as Professor Jesson are that children in comprehensive schools do significantly better than their cohorts in grammar schools, and that in areas such as Kent, which is exclusively selective, we have a far higher proportion of failing schools than we should have. Is it not right that if we are to drive up standards, we must drive out selection?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue is standards and an assessment of standards based on the facts. As my hon. Friend suggests, I have had an opportunity to examine the research commissioned by him from Professor Jesson. I was interested that it stated that grammar schools in Kent and Medway do less well and are performing at lower levels than other grammar schools in the country, which is in itself an interesting point. I was interested, too, that the last comparison made by my Department between the results of grammar and comprehensive schools in 1999 showed that 100 per cent. of pupils in the top 25 per cent. of comprehensive schools ability range achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 96.4 per cent. achieving that at grammar schools. The fundamental point that I want to make, and which I sought to make before the Select Committee, is that the judgment must be based on educational standards for everybody, and it must be based on the facts and the factual assessment of those standards.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Who was it who coined the phrase "sink schools" and in what context?

Mr. Clarke

I have no idea. I remember the phrase from the period in office of the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a respected supporter. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shouts "Alastair Campbell" across the Chamber. I am open to correction by the hon. Gentleman at all times, but I am pretty sure that Mr. Campbell never used the phrase "sink schools", and that the phrase was generated during the period of the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a supporter.

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

Is my right hon. Friend aware of one of the problems of the selective system that has been highlighted by the heads of the 21 secondary modern schools in Buckinghamshire—notably, the differential funding, which means that they are in deficit, while the grammar schools have a £2 million surplus? Is he concerned about the effect that that is having on the standard of education provided for disadvantaged children, who are over-represented in those schools, particularly ethnic minority pupils?

Mr. Clarke

I am aware that there are issues of funding between schools. That is principally a matter for the local education authority concerned, but I return to the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman): in Buckinghamshire, as in Kent, the judgment must be made on the basis of educational standards for all pupils in the county, and on the basis of factual assessments of that, during which comparisons of the type that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) makes are worthy of consideration.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Does the Secretary of State accept that Labour Members frequently seem to be stuck in a time warp when they start to speak about academic selection? Whatever the failings of secondary moderns in the 1950s and 1960s, today's secondary modern high schools are achieving results only slightly below those of all-ability comprehensives. In English and maths, they are better than a third of comprehensive schools. At GCSE, they are better than a quarter of comprehensive schools. His own Department has designated 11 secondary moderns as beacon schools and 36 as specialist schools. Is it not time that Ministers joined us in celebrating the achievements of secondary moderns and grammar schools instead of knocking them?

Mr. Clarke

I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating the genuine educational achievement of schools of all types. There are outstanding secondary modern schools, grammar schools, comprehensive schools and private schools. In each of those categories, however, there are also schools that are less than outstanding and which need serious work. That is why I focus, as will my Government throughout, on the issue of standards for everybody—[Interruption.] Lese majeste is a failing of which I am, I hope, not often guilty, Mr. Speaker, but I am on this occasion and I apologise to you for it. The Government whom I am proud to serve—[Laughter.] I believe that it is important to restore the concept of service following the approach taken by the previous Government on these matters. The Government whom I serve will focus on educational standards in all schools, celebrate high-quality schools of all types and seek to raise the standards of lower-performing schools of all types. That will be our approach throughout. We will not take the sort of ideological, backward-looking approach that characterises the Conservative party.

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