HL Deb 15 March 2000 vol 610 cc1544-6

3 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will now support the continuance of the principle of selection by ability in some maintained British schools.

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

My Lords, we believe that the selection of children by schools on the basis of ability is not in the best interests of children, is divisive and restricts parental choice. We want an education system that benefits the many, not the few, and for all children in all schools to receive good quality education.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the noble Baroness accept from me that we support very strongly the right of the Prime Minister and his ministerial and parliamentary colleagues to make choices for their own children to attend schools which select on the basis of interview and/or examination? Why is it that that choice cannot be extended to all parents for their own children?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I have already said that the Government believe that a non-selective system is one that is likely to serve the needs of all children. I do not believe that there is any support for a move towards a selective system. The noble Baroness's own government in 1996 produced a White Paper which sought to expand grammar school provision. They sent out a consultation document which pursued the idea of a grammar school in every town. That produced over 600 responses. Only 2 per cent supported the proposal and 69 per cent strongly opposed giving schools greater freedom to select pupils. I am answering the noble Baroness's question. Most parents do not wish to have the opportunity to send their children to schools which select by ability. Nor does the Prime Minister send his children to a school which selects by ability; it is a comprehensive school.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with what appears to me to be the case; namely, that more grammar schools became comprehensives during the period in which the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Secretary of State for Education than at any other comparable period? If so, what deductions does my noble friend draw?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Perhaps I may confirm the statistics. Between 1970 and 1974 when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Secretary of State for Education and Science—that was, I believe, her position at the time—she approved 91 per cent of secondary reorganisation plans submitted to her, more than any other Minister before or since. In answer to my noble friend, I deduce from that that the Conservative Party has not been the defender of grammar schools that the noble Baroness claims it to be.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, was the Minister present in 1995 when Mr David Blunkett made a speech in which he said: Watch my lips: no selection either by interview or examination under a Labour government'"? As I now believe that that was a joke, can the noble Baroness tell me whether the joke was, "Watch my lips" or "No selection by interview or examination under a Labour government"?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I was there at the time. In using the expression, "Watch my lips", the Secretary of State was parodying the famous phrase coined by Mr George Bush. There may be noble Lords who do not remember it. My right honourable friend did not say that the policy was a joke; indeed, he made it absolutely clear at the time, and has done since, that there should be no more grammar schools. He made clear in many media interviews both before and after the general election that there would be no more grammar schools and no further selection based on the 11-plus. It is our policy to oppose selection on ability or through interviews.

Lord Tope

My Lords, does the Minister agree that all that needs to be said on this matter was said yesterday in a one-and-a-half-hour debate on an amendment and will no doubt be repeated at similar length this afternoon when she repeats a Statement? Therefore, rather than reiterate well known entrenched views and statements, can the Minister tell the House what lessons the Government have learnt from their handling of this issue?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that this is a total distraction. However, the distraction has not been introduced by me but by the Opposition, who wish to take up parliamentary time on this matter. We believe that if we are to consider education we should debate the important questions of how to raise standards in schools, improve quality and narrow the gap between those young people who are extremely successful in our schools and those who fail. Regrettably, that gap was not narrowed under the previous administration.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the average performance of the top quarter of pupils at comprehensive schools is just as good as that achieved at grammar schools? Is that not proof that comprehensives are at least as effective as grammar schools in providing a first-class education?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I can confirm that. I provide my noble friend and the House with the statistics. The average performance of the top 24 per cent of pupils in maintained comprehensive schools is slightly higher than that in grammar schools. The percentage of pupils in grammar schools who achieve five-plus grades A to C at GCSE and GNVQ is 95.4 per cent. The figure for a similar level of achievement in comprehensive schools is 100 per cent. That demonstrates without doubt that comprehensive schools are doing extremely well.

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