HL Deb 10 December 1998 vol 595 cc1030-2

3.17 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that regular balloting on grammar schools will have unsettling effects on the staff and the pupils, especially those taking public examinations.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, there will not be regular balloting on grammar schools' admission arrangements. If the result is in favour of change, there will be no further ballot. A ballot will only be held at the request of 20 per cent. of parents at relevant schools. If a ballot supports the existing admission arrangements, no further ballot can be held for at least five years. If there is a ballot in favour of change, there will be at least 20 months for staff preparation before the first non-selective year group arrives. We expect existing pupils, including those taking public examinations, to continue to be educated in grammar school classes while they remain at the school.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness is astonishingly sanguine about what is nothing less than guerilla warfare and a war of attrition on these schools. It is not true to say that there will not be a revisiting of the petitions in the ballot. The petitioning system is revisited after four years, not five years—it is the ballot after five years—and will continue to be so. Does the noble Baroness agree that the resources, the time and the energy which are already having to be expended because of the activities of some of the noble Baroness's colleagues, such as the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, is disruptive to the parents, to the staff and to the children?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend Lord Hattersley will speak for himself. I do not know whether he is in his place this afternoon. I do not agree with the noble Baroness. She seems to have forgotten that this was a manifesto commitment. The Labour Party made it clear in its election manifesto that there would be a system of asking parents whether they wished the admission arrangements in grammar schools to change. Clearly, the electorate think rather differently from the noble Baroness opposite.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness, in her academic mode as a person who ran institutions, whether she would have been happy if those institutions were subject to structural change every five years, subject to the electorate, particularly in view of the fact that grammar schools provide between 20 to 30 per cent. of the pupils from the state sector who go on to the more prestigious universities? As an academic, is the noble Baroness happy about that? May I remind her of "education, education, education"?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am happy to switch to my academic mode, although I am not here to answer questions as an academic but as a Member of the Government. However, I can say from my experience as an academic, that the institution that I ran constantly suffered from the ravages—I can put it no differently—of the previous government's higher education expenditure cuts. The proposed changes are a matter for parents. They will decide whether they think it is right to petition and then to go for a petition again later, if a ballot is lost, after five years.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me when balloting of schools first started and the difference between balloting for grammar schools and balloting for other state schools, which I believe happened quite frequently under the previous administration?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. Noble Lords on the other side of the House have a tendency to accept ballots where they think that holding a ballot is desirable, but where they are obsessed with a particular issue—for example, a very small number of, say, 130 schools—they take a totally different position.

Lord Tope

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the ballot information code, which comprises Schedule 4 of the regulations, applies not only to LEAs and governing bodies but to all groups and individuals wishing to influence the result of a ballot? The information code states, among other things, that written materials, should be objective and explanatory, seeking to clarify the issues without omitting important facts or arguments, and without selecting facts or arguments in such a way as to distort or mislead It adds that: oral information should be accurate and should not mislead the audience". What effect does the Minister think that such a code might have if it were applied to the next general election campaign?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not believe that such a code would be appropriate in a general election campaign.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain to the House, either as an academic or a Member of the Government, how she equates the pursuit of excellence in education with the abolition of the assisted places scheme and the continual attack on grammar schools?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords. The assisted places scheme involved the expenditure of large amounts of public money on very small numbers of pupils who were taken out of the public sector on the assumption that private schools were automatically better than schools in the public sector. I do not for a moment accept that. Moreover, the money that has been saved from the abolition of that scheme will be used to reduce class sizes in our primary schools. I believe that is something that most parents greatly welcome. This is a Government committed to education for everybody, not just the privileged minority.

Lord Davis of Oldham

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as chairman of the Further Education Funding Council, although that is not directly relevant to this Question. During the very large number of transformations of the status of grammar schools in the 1980s under the administration of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was there any evidence at all that examination results suffered?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for reminding us of the fact that more grammar schools were changed to comprehensive schools when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Secretary of State for Education than under any other education Minister since the war. I can also confirm that that had no impact on examination results. Indeed, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, examination results in secondary schools improved.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to educational standards and I agree with her on that point. However, does she agree that teachers in grammar schools base their experience on very bright children who are doing very well, and that because of the current insecurity such teachers will take that expertise out of the public sector and into the private sector, which will not be to the advantage of public sector standards?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not believe that that is the case. I do not believe that the professionalism of our grammar school teachers is such that they will feel insecure as a result of a change of this kind. I believe that many of them will see this as an important new challenge. My own daughter went to a school that had been a grammar school and became a comprehensive. None of the teachers left. They were all able to make the adjustment extremely well and found it most challenging.