HL Deb 15 December 1998 vol 595 cc1231-2

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Young asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the balloting system for grammar schools is consistent with their aim of raising standards in schools.

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

My Lords, increasing parental involvement in education is an important aspect of our drive to raise standards. Enabling parents to make a choice about future admissions arrangements to grammar schools is part of that.

Baroness Young

My Lords, is the noble Baroness satisfied that the very complex—some would say unfair—system of balloting which allows votes for those who are automatically eligible and for those who are eligible only if registered, which includes parents of children under compulsory school age who may well leave the area before their children reach the age of 11, is fair? Does she agree that that will cause not only great concern to parents of children in the grammar schools but also disruption to pupils and staff? Can she justify that as "raising standards"?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government have heard the criticisms by the Conservative Party about the arrangements for ballots but consider that these are sensible arrangements that allow those parents who are most likely to be affected by a change in the admissions policies of grammar schools first to sign a petition and then to vote. As to standards and disruption, I am absolutely clear that teachers in grammar schools are more professional than the Question implies. I have no hesitation in saying that they will be able to cope perfectly well with a ballot inviting parents to express their views about admissions policies and that the excellent education that they are providing for many pupils in such schools will continue.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I speak as president of the Grammar School Association. In spite of the admiration that she shows for grammar school teachers, does the noble Baroness consider that a policy that subjects schools to five-yearly ballots is governed more by ideology than the interests of education? I refer to the Answer given to my noble friend about the improvement in educational standards. Is it not ideology rather than education that governs the policies that the noble Baroness advocates?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I utterly refute that. This is all about providing an opportunity for parents to exercise choice about the form of secondary education that they prefer. That seems to me to be democratic and utterly appropriate in the circumstances. Moreover, as I said only last week, it is democratic since the electorate was consulted on this matter following an election manifesto commitment to consult parents on their views about admission policies.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, the noble Baroness said last week that a school would have 20 months in which to prepare for going comprehensive. Does she agree that the minimum size of a good comprehensive school is at least five, and preferably six or eight, forms of entry? How does the noble Baroness envisage that within 20 months a building programme can be planned, the allocation of resources made and the architectural plans arranged to give those non-selective children the education that they deserve in buildings that are ready to admit them?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not accept the assumptions that lie behind the question of the noble Baroness. The average grammar school in this country has about 800 pupils. Some 40 per cent. of comprehensive schools have fewer than 800 pupils, so many comprehensive schools operate perfectly effectively with school rolls that are lower than the average for grammar schools. There need be no reorganisation of the kind to which the noble Baroness refers.

Lord Tope

My Lords, will the Minister explain why parents of key stage 1 pupils in a primary school will be eligible to take part in a ballot while parents of key stage 1 children in an infant school will not? Is that fair?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, we have gone through the issue of what is an appropriate group of parents to vote on ballots on countless different occasions, including when the Bill was going through this House. The Government believe that they have devised the most sensible and fair system of balloting which could possibly be achieved. We have been criticised by my noble friend Lord Hattersley on the one hand and by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on the other. I suspect that that means that we must have got it about right.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the average size of grammar schools is not 800 pupils. I hope that the noble Baroness will look again at those figures. In fact, a large majority of grammar schools have only four forms of entry which, as my noble friend said, means that they are not sufficiently large to be viable as comprehensive schools. Will the noble Baroness tell the House how standards will be raised if those fine schools are removed?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I must contradict the noble Baroness. First, I have in front of me the figures which are provided by statisticians in my department which show that the average grammar school has 800 pupils on its roll. Secondly, I do not believe for a moment that standards will fall. Those schools are not to be abolished; they will continue.