HL Deb 25 April 1996 vol 571 cc1247-50

3.14 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have to extend selection in secondary education.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has recently consulted interested parties on proposals to increase flexibility in school admissions. This will take effect later in the year. We are also considering the options for further extending self-government for schools in the longer term, including in the area of admissions and selection.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, first, why should there be a possible extension of selection when there is overwhelming evidence that it is both unfair and inefficient and it is widely discredited by most educationists? Secondly, when selection is made, by whatever method, what happens to those pupils who are not selected? Thirdly, what becomes of parental choice when selection is made, in particular since the Government place so much emphasis on parental choice?

Lord Henley

My Lords, unlike the party opposite—as we know, it says that it believes in a universal comprehensive system, taking away both choice and selection, but practices the opposite—we believe in extending both choice and selection. We believe in diversity. But that does not mean that we propose to go back to universal selection. What we want to do is to go back to a diversity of different systems, which will allow parents the appropriate choice of schools.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the state system of education in this country is in the trouble that it is precisely because it has paid too much attention to the views of "most educationists", as promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington? Is it not true that the state system of education delivered a much higher standard of education to all people in this country, including the poorest, when it was more selective?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to extensive reliance on the views of educationists. I remind my noble friend that we rely very much on the views of parents. I draw my noble friend's attention to a recent poll conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which indicated that the majority of people in this country, and the majority of parents, are in favour of a return to a degree of selection.

Baroness David

My Lords, the DFEE proposals for changing admission arrangements were made in a consultative document with the rather dry title, Review of Circular 6/93: Admissions to Maintained Schools, and Grant-Maintained School Admissions Arrangements. That document was published on 8th January. Responses were required by 22nd February 1996. Can the Minister tell us when Her Majesty's Government will respond to their January consultation; or is this all wrapped up in the proposed White Paper?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as we have made clear on a number of occasions, and as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made clear, we intend to allow grant-maintained and LEA schools to extend their selection from roughly 10 per cent. to something like 15 per cent. without coming to the Secretary of State for approval. Obviously if schools wish to go further, they can seek approval from my right honourable friend for such major changes should they so wish. I welcome applications from all schools, whether LEA or grant maintained.

As regards further steps forward, again as my right honourable friend made quite clear in her speech to the University of London Institute of Education, we shall bring forward further proposals in the White Paper in June; and we would want to introduce a greater degree of selection.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many people feel that the educational policy in this country is inadequate and has been so for a long time? The new theories to avoid selection and various other methods are not popular with the majority of parents.

Is it not high time that the educational policy in this country was governed by the Government and the Department for Education rather than the National Union of Teachers?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I can accept a great deal of what the noble Lord says. We believe that education should be governed by the policies of this Government but also by the choices of parents because we believe that parents are the right people to make the right decisions as regards the education of their children.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some of us were late developers? If an important selection has to be made at the age of 11, it could be wrong for young people who are late developers but who turn out to be near geniuses. Therefore selection at the early age of 11 is not always right.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I very much accept my noble friend's remark. As I have made quite clear, we do not propose any system involving a return to a universal 11-plus or its equivalent. We say that parents should be able to make the choice. A great many parents want to select schools. Whether that selection is made on the basis of their own specialisms or the ability of their children, they would like to make that choice. We believe, therefore, that schools have a right to select, and to select appropriately. We want to see a diversity of provision that will allow parents to make that appropriate choice.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, is not this harking back to the issue of selection a terrible diversion from the real challenges in regard to the provision of high-quality education to pupils of all ability in our schools if they are to face the future successfully and help this country to face the future successfully? When the Minister talks of parental choice, is he aware that those of us with experience of the system would like to have the choice of not having our five and six year-olds educated in classes of over 30, and not having to sell raffle tickets and hold car boot sales to buy textbooks for our 15 year-olds?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the education spokesman for the party opposite himself said that the comprehensive system of the past 30 years had failed, and then seemed to suggest a scheme that would widen it even further. That would serve only to remove all choice from parents. Choice can never be total. We want to extend choice as far as possible to as many parents as possible.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, apart from their own speculations, dreams and opinions, what hard evidence based on what research do the Government have to suggest that the introduction of more selection will improve the quality of education for all children?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the hard evidence is that it will extend parental choice. By extending parental choice one will increase parental involvement. As I believe anyone knows, even the noble Lord, parental involvement improves standards in schools.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that very many teachers find it quite absurd to be told that all children are equal and must be taught together and in the same way? There are teachers who have been crying out for some form of opportunity to teach children according to their innate abilities and talents. They would welcome some form of increased selection based on a range of different characteristics.

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. Sadly, those who represent a great many teachers and some of the more extreme teacher unions do not send that message out from their members.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, in answering my Question and responding to others, the Minister once again emphasised parental choice. We on these Benches do not disagree with him. What we are saying—a point which he continually refuses to answer—is that thousands of parents do not have parental choice and that to a large extent education is based on selection. Will he answer that point?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I have never said that choice can be absolutely total. I have said that we want to make choice as widely available to parents as possible. We want to offer a whole range of schools: grant-maintained schools; local authority schools; comprehensive schools; specialist schools; city technology colleges; and technology colleges, or whatever. By extending that choice and diversity, we increase choice and diversity for parents.