HL Deb 18 January 1999 vol 596 cc359-61

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to extend the policy of allowing parents to vote on the future of grammar schools to other education issues.

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

My Lords, we are committed to increasing parental participation in education. Grammar school ballots are one way of doing that, so are parental ballots on new legal categories for grant-maintained schools. However, ballots are only one way of involving parents and they are appropriate to particular circumstances. We are taking a wide range of other measures to increase parental participation. These include having more parents on school governing bodies, parent governor representatives on local authority committees dealing with education, home-school agreements and parental involvement in our literacy and numeracy strategies.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, does the noble Baroness remember that on 15th December she said, 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"?—[Official Report, 15/12/98; col. 1231.] Why, therefore, are Her Majesty's Government not prepared to allow the same democratic choice which the noble Baroness so admires to parents of pupils who are at non-selective schools who wish them to become selective? Why is democracy restricted to one element of the education system? Democracy surely is universal.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the whole purpose of parental ballots is to consult those parents who are likely to be affected in future by a change in the admissions process in selective schools. Those parents whose children already attend selective schools will be able to keep their children in those schools and the schools will remain selective in respect of those particular children. Therefore it would be wholly inappropriate to consult them. They will not be affected by a change in the same way as parents whose children have not yet gone to secondary school.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, is it not correct that the Government of which my noble friend is a distinguished Member have corrected a flawed system which they inherited from the previous administration?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for pointing out the extent to which the system that we inherited is flawed. There are 166 grammar schools left in this country. That is a relatively small number but nevertheless we put before the electorate a commitment that we would end selection. That is a commitment we intend to keep. The great majority of the electorate appear to agree with that because they voted for us.

Lord Tope

My Lords, will the Minister remind the House why the Government decided that parents whose six year-old children attend an all-through primary school will obtain a vote in a grammar school ballot, but parents whose six year-old children attend an infant school will not? Could not that be an area for extending the ballot?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has raised this matter on a number of previous occasions. It is always a problem to decide what is the right thing to do as regards a ballot of this kind. But having considered all the pros and cons I believe that the Government took the right decision to allow those parents with children in primary schools which are feeder schools for secondary schools—in other words, either all-through primary schools or junior schools—to have a vote.

Baroness David

My Lords, does the Minister agree that parents are now much more involved than previously in raising standards in primary and secondary schools? They are involved in education committees and—as my noble friend said—in home-school agreements. Schools encourage them to come in much more often. It is excellent that parents should be much more involved and I hope that it will continue.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I very much agree with what my noble friend has said about the importance of parental involvement in our schools. If we are to raise standards we must make parents welcome in all schools for children of all ages. That is somewhat easier in the case of young children than is sometimes the case in our secondary schools. There is now a wealth of research evidence to show that the most successful schools are those which involve parents in discussions about the curriculum and about how to help and support their children through giving them the space and opportunity to do their homework properly and which involve parents in a variety of extracurricular activities. That is absolutely central to this Government's programme of educational reform.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, as the Government desire the abolition of selection at secondary level, and plainly hope that that will be the result of their carefully restricted ballots, is the Minister aware that officials in the Kent education authority have estimated that the cost of conversion in Kent will be £150 million? Does the Minister consider that that would be best value for money? If that is the result of the ballots, does she undertake that the Government will pay that sum? If not, what advice does she have for the authority as to where it will find the money?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government are aware that Kent local education authority has done some calculations about what wholesale reorganisation might mean in Kent? However, the Government do not accept that a move from selective to non-selective admission policies necessarily involves wholesale reorganisation. A great deal of experience of grammar schools becoming comprehensive schools has been gained in the past which has not always involved wholesale reorganisation, particularly in parts of the country—I am not quite sure what the gesture of the noble and learned Lord means; I do not know whether he is trying to shut me up and get me to sit down, I cannot interpret it—where there is already a substantial number of comprehensive schools.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the overwhelming support the Government are receiving for their proposals on ballots concerning grammar schools? I urge the Minister and the Government to implement the proposals as soon as possible. As the Question asks about possible future ballots, will the Government consider arranging a ballot as to whether the charitable status which public schools enjoy should be continued?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, as to the first part of my noble friend's question, the Government have already passed legislation to allow ballots to take place and they issued guidance on the procedures for those ballots shortly before Christmas. As to the second part of his question, there are about 1,200 schools which have charitable status—that is about half of all independent schools. It is a matter for the Charity Commissioners to decide what organisations should have charitable status. As I understand it, the Charity Commissioners are now undertaking a review of all organisations that currently have charitable status, including independent schools, and they have consulted the organisation which represents independent schools of charitable status.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, have the Commissioners also consulted those independent schools which are of religious foundation?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, if an independent school with a religious foundation also has charitable status, I am sure it will be a member of the organisation representing independent schools with charitable status, which has been consulted.

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