HL Deb 10 March 1998 vol 587 cc105-7

2.57 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it will be possible, under the provisions of the School Standards and Framework Bill, for local education authorities to alter the admissions policies of grammar schools.

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

My Lords, local education authorities will not be able under the Bill to alter grammar school admissions so as to end the selection of pupils by reference to high ability. Unless a grammar school itself wishes to change, those selective arrangements would only be removed if parents triggered a ballot and subsequently voted in favour of change.

LEAs will have no more powers than at present to end the selective admission arrangements of grammar schools and, in the case of current county schools, they will have less power than at present.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. I understand that LEAs will not be able to change the admission arrangements in grammar schools. However, will the Minister confirm or clarify that LEAs could not initiate the petition which precedes a ballot and that no single councillor could initiate a petition which would precede a ballot? Will she confirm that plans which have been published by Birmingham Education Authority would not be allowed under the proposals made by the Government?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I cannot comment on plans from Birmingham because I do not believe that any particular plans have yet been published. The department is not aware of details. I know that discussions are going on in Birmingham about the position of selective schools there. However, under the new arrangements there are seven selective schools in Birmingham; six would be foundation schools or voluntary-aided schools and the local authority would have no role in relation to triggering ballots or initiating ballots. In general, ballots will be triggered by parents or groups of parents and by governing bodies.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that people in Birmingham would welcome the opportunity of expressing their views on the selective education that exists there at the moment? However, should we not turn our attention to the comprehensive schools in the city, which do such a good job in difficult circumstances?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, yes. The comprehensive schools in the city of Birmingham are working hard to meet the needs of their pupils. Indeed, the chief education officer in Birmingham has been attempting to improve achievement and there has been a great deal of success in recent years. It is also the case that, since comprehensive schools were introduced 20 to 25 years ago, the proportion of pupils gaining five or more grades A to C in GCSE examinations has almost doubled.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may come back to my supplementary question, which the noble Baroness did not answer, as to whether a council or individual councillor can initiate a petition?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not know whether an individual councillor can initiate a petition. We are still consulting on the arrangements for both petitions and ballots and the answer to that is not yet clear. When the information is available, I will write to the noble Baroness.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that a parent will not be precluded from taking such action simply because that parent also happens to be a councillor. However, does the Minister agree that schools, including grammar schools, are an important part of the local community? If so, can she say why the Government feel that the elected and accountable representatives of the local community—namely, the local education authority—should not be taking those decisions subject to wide and relevant consultation?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government believe that it is right for the governing bodies of schools and for parents to take those decisions. Of course, local education authorities may have a view and will be able to object to decisions taken by another admissions authority, such as a foundation school or a voluntary-aided school, just as any other school is able to object to a specific proposal for changing the admissions arrangements in either a grammar or comprehensive school.

Baroness Young

My Lords, can the noble Baroness clarify an important point that she made in relation to parents triggering a vote? Are those parents from a specific grammar school or can it be any parent in the local education authority?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, as I said earlier, the Government are still consulting on the specific arrangements for ballots. However, the intention is that the parents of children in primary schools that are feeder schools for the specific school where there may be a change in the admission arrangements will be the ones who will be able to take part in the ballots, rather than those who are already part of a selective school.

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