HL Deb 15 March 2000 vol 610 cc1593-608

6.6 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question which was asked in another place earlier this afternoon.

"I am happy to repeat to this House the Government's position on grammar schools. We have said on a number of occasions that we have no intention of changing the status of grammar schools unless parents wish it. I am happy to repeat that commitment today.

"The policy which the Labour Party agreed in 1995 and our manifesto both said that the decision on whether grammar schools continue to use the 11-plus would be a matter for parents, not local education authorities. That was agreed by both Houses of Parliament in the School Standards and Framework Act, which remains the law. It remains our position today.

"My noble friend the Minister for Education and Employment said in the other place last night that we would restore that position in the Commons following the Lords' vote to end balloting. We fully respect the vote of parents in Ripon, but it is hard to see how it could be taken as an expression of views in other areas any more than a by-election vote is an expression of the views of those in every other constituency in the land. One ballot should never be allowed to pre-empt the decisions of others with very different electorates.

"While the Opposition keep re-running the debates of the sixties, we are focused on improving standards through diversity and excellence in our education system as a whole. The Government have already significantly extended diversity. We have now 480 specialist schools approved, 250 beacon schools. We have brought in new voluntary aided schools from the independent sector for Jewish, Muslim and Sikh children. The Excellence in Cities programme is focusing targeted resources in inner-city secondaries in London and five other major cities. We have been ready to tackle failure in inner-city schools, where the party opposite simply stood on the sidelines. As a result, failing schools are being turned around in 17 months now rather than 25 previously.

"Yes, we can learn from the first Fresh Start schools, but leaving schools to sink or close is not an alternative which this Government will accept. So today I can tell the House that we are inviting promoters from the voluntary, religious or business sectors to bring forward proposals to take over weak or failing schools or to replace them with new city academies.

"The promoters of the academy will have plans for improving education for all the pupils attending the school which is to be replaced. We will use existing legislative powers to establish them. They will be built and managed by partnerships involving the state, voluntary, Church and business sponsors. Over the next year, we intend to launch the first academies. We will be looking for imaginative proposals from potential promoters. The aim will always be to improve pupil performance by breaking the cycle of low expectations. Promoters may use different approaches to management, governance, teaching, the school day and the curriculum. We would expect a specialist focus in at least one curriculum area. The academies will also work with other local schools.

"So, yes, we will leave the decision on grammar schools to parents. That has been our policy for nearly five years. It is not this side that is confused about policy but the Opposition. The Conservative spokeswoman in the House of Lords yesterday sought to encourage the establishment of new grammar schools with an amendment which was defeated. Yet on 1st October 1999, the honourable Lady opposite told the Times Educational Supplement: 'I don't get the impression that in areas where there arc no grammar schools, there is a great groundswell of opinion in favour of introducing them'. "When it had the chance to improve our schools, the party opposite let down millions of children. As Secretary of State, I am determined that all children have the equality of opportunity to fulfil their potential, not uniformity that treats every pupil the same. That is why I am willing to leave decisions on grammar schools to parents locally and why I have no intention of shifting my focus from that of driving up standards".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating that Answer. However, first, I am deeply disappointed that the conventions of the House were not followed and that I was not given a copy of it. I had to go to the noble Baroness's own Whips' Office and was given a copy of the Statement which belonged to one of the clerks in that office. I find that a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. I received it literally only two or three minutes before I walked into the Chamber, and only after my own efforts to Find it.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will give way. This Statement was made as a result of an Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place. In the case of a PNQ, it is not customary to give the Answer to the Opposition Front Bench. I speak as one who served on the Opposition Front Bench for 10 years. It is only in the case of a formal Statement in another place that the Opposition Front Bench get a shot at it first.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is as may be. However, copies of the Statement are available. The Minister has it; the clerks in her office have it; and I believe that it would have been a courtesy to have allowed me to see a copy of it, too.

Secondly, I refer to one of the lines in the Statement which the noble Baroness repeated: It is not this side that is confused about policy, but the Opposition". At the weekend, almost every single newspaper in this country was also confused. The statements of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment were widely welcomed in most newspapers but they created some puzzlement in others. However, among people up and down the land who have a connection with grammar schools—the staff, the parents and the pupils—there was elation because of words such as "end of hostilities against grammar schools", "drawing a line in the sand", "putting these arguments behind us" and "arguments about selection are now a thing of the past". There was a great deal of excitement. I wonder what the noble Baroness will say to many of the staff and parents who have been in touch to say how disappointed they are today.

The noble Baroness is aware that the Secretary of State's Statement was extremely disappointing. However, when one strips away all the words, it amounts to a very real message to the anti-grammar school campaigners, "Don't stop your work! Keep burrowing, keep harassing, and we will use the might of our vote in another place to back you".

Since that statement, does the noble Baroness appreciate the reaction of grammar school staff, parents and children? I give as an example the experience of Mrs Margaret Lemon, head teacher of Slough Grammar School. On Saturday morning a meeting of 500 people took place at Slough Grammar School. They were overjoyed with the Ripon result and greeted it with cheers. They were even more thrilled this morning when they heard the news of your Lordships' decision yesterday. However, all their hopes are now dashed. It is a source of great jollity to the noble Lord, Lord Bach. I believe that the sentiments of those parents were genuine; they felt exceedingly let down after having their hopes raised by the Secretary of State over the weekend.

Mr Martin Morys, headmaster of Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School, said: It was with enormous relief that I heard the Ripon result. I thought that the end was in sight when I saw today's papers". But the message from the Secretary of State today is that the end is not in sight and that the war of attrition must go on.

We welcome the announcement today about academies. Indeed, we should regard it as something of a flattering proposition. They are modelled on the city technology colleges. They will be given the freedom that those colleges enjoy, longer days, and involvement with business. They will be freed from teaching the national curriculum, and I wish them well. Certainly, we support the record of the city technology colleges and the way in which the experience of those colleges spawned specialist schools. The noble Baroness's party has picked up, supported and, indeed, extended that.

However, one cannot get away from the Secretary of State's Statement. We understand from a Question earlier today that it was only the reference to "watch my lips" that was the joke. Not many people got that until the other day. As the Daily Mail journalist said, it took us five years to understand the punch-line. Nevertheless, once we understood it, we knew that he was serious about the other half of the statement: There will be no selection. either by interview or examination". That is what he said and that is what we understand him to have meant and to be true. However, it is not true. Ministers' children are being selected by interview as we speak. Ministers' children are enjoying selective education as we speak. Some of them have been selected by interview and others by examination under a Labour Government; indeed, not only under a Labour Government but belonging to a Labour Government. The level of hypocrisy here is absolutely breathtaking.

At lunchtime I asked the noble Baroness a question and a large number of my colleagues were disappointed that I did not receive an answer. Therefore, I shall ask my question again. We welcome and strongly support the right of the Prime Minister and his ministerial and parliamentary colleagues to choose schools which select on the basis of interview and/or examination—to choose the best school for their children. We would advocate that for all parents. However, I want to know what defence the noble Baroness has for saying that that is all right for Mr Blair, for his ministerial colleagues and for his parliamentary colleagues, but it is not all right for all the other parents up and down this land. That question really must be answered. If it is not, it betrays a level of hypocrisy not only that we deem to be present but that the Government defend shamelessly.

Selection also exists within the system, with interviews, auditions and testing for music, dance, sport, science and technology, and for special needs children. What is so sinful about making a special arrangement for children of high academic ability? Why single them out? Why discriminate against them? I believe that this represents discrimination, positively, against a group of young people who will be denied a choice. If the Secretary of State and the noble Baroness are to be taken at their word, are not really interested, want to put this debate behind them and believe that what happens to grammar schools is a matter for people at local level, why do they say time and time again that they do not approve of selection and that there will be no selection by interview or by examination under a Labour Government? If the parents in other grammar schools vote as they did at Ripon, it will continue. Are they some kind of pariah in the system that is not agreed to by the noble Baroness?

Yesterday we had an interesting debate on this side of the House with the Liberals, whom I criticised for being inconsistent in their support for selection, national and local. We said that we knew Liberal Democrats who were actively and in many cases overtly supporting their grammar schools, and we had to remind them that in Parliament Liberal Democrats always vote against selection. I looked up Hansard, and found that I had wrongly accused the noble Lord, Lord Tope. It was to his noble friend Lady Maddock that I said: Does the noble Baroness know that some Liberal Democrats support some of their local grammar schools around the country? Does that sit easily with what she has just said? The answer came: The noble Baroness will know that we support different things locally from what we do nationally."—[Official Report, 10/6/98; co1.1048.] There it is. I said that I would find it.

My final point is as follows. Almost every time we have this kind of discussion the noble Baroness prays in aid a question as to whether we have a serious interest in raising standards. I do. I applaud diversity, choice, beacon schools, city technology colleges, specialist schools, bilateral schools, grammar schools and comprehensive schools. All are good, good because diversity and choice are there for all parents.

But I wish to tell the noble Baroness that I have been in this business for a very long time, using my energies to help support policies for raising standards. The greatest opposition to the work over the 18 years when we were in power was twofold. The Labour Opposition in both Houses opposed the setting up of CTCs, specialist schools, the introduction of the national curriculum, assessment and testing, grant-maintained schools and devolution of budgets. They did so tooth and nail, all the way down the line. Much of that has now been adopted as Labour Party policy.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am extremely sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but we are dealing with a Private Notice Question, following the rules, which is here in the form of a Statement. The noble Baroness will know much better than I that ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and that although brief comments and questions for clarification from all quarters of the House are allowed, such statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate. The noble Baroness had spoken for nine minutes when I rose. She might think that that is a bit long, bearing in mind that this is the equivalent of a Statement.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I stand to be corrected by the Clerk at the Table, but I have been in the House since 1987, and my understanding is that each Front Bench spokesman makes a full and entirely free response to the statement from the Government Benches, that at that time the clock is stopped and that then the Clerk starts it again for 20 minutes for questions. If I am wrong, I will stand chided by the noble Lord.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am very wary, because of the noble Baroness's long experience—much greater than mine—-in this House, but I read as follows from the Companion: Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions for clarification from all quarters of the House are allowed, such statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate. Discussion on a statement should not exceed 20 minutes from the end of the Minister's initial reply to the Opposition spokesmen". That does not imply that the Opposition spokesmen are allowed to take part in a debate.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that confirms what I have just said, that the 20 minutes start from the end of the Opposition's spokesman's statement, and I believe that I can complete my statement.

I was coming to my last comment: the second thwarting factor of much of what we were trying to do in those 18 years was Labour-controlled councils. I would single out two: conspicuously, Islington and Sheffield. Both were producing the most awful education. They were spending much more per head than others on their children in the schools, but the education was appalling. The present Secretary of State presided over a great deal of failed education, and I will take no criticism from the noble Baroness of our intention to work hard to improve standards, and indeed to support the Government when they are working towards that.

This Statement will come as no comfort whatsoever to those of us who support freedom in education and as much choice and diversity as possible for all the children in this country.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I rise with slight trepidation, in view of the previous exchange. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement here. It was a fairly wide-ranging Statement in reply to a very specific question. The response from the Conservative Front Bench has possibly been more wide-ranging, even embracing Liberal Democrat policy, locally and nationally.

I understand very well how strongly and deeply the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, feels about grammar schools. Nobody who takes part in education debates in this House could doubt that. But it is becoming an obsession. We must be reminded that, whatever our views on the issue of selection and grammar schools, only four and a half per cent of our children attend grammar schools. This is not a mainstream issue for education as a whole. In most parts of the country it is, and has been for a long time, a complete non-issue.

As I was forced to remind the House yesterday, I happen to be closely associated with an area in which it has been a major issue for the last 30 years, and continues to be. But I must say again to the noble Baroness on the Conservative Front Bench that, as I demonstrated yesterday, it is not a vote winning issue, even in the London Borough of Sutton. So I worry and wonder about the obsession that she and some of her colleagues have with what is such a minority issue. Perhaps we should not worry too much about it, but while they are trying to appeal to their hard core support they are missing the real education issues and the issues of concern to a far wider group of people.

Before I turn to the Government, I wish to say that I also, coming from Sutton particularly, view with considerable scepticism the noble Baroness's concern about the instability and uncertainty for schools faced with the possibility of a ballot once every five years. It was not the present government that introduced ballots to schools. It was the last government, when they introduced grant-maintained status. I speak from personal experience when I say that that introduced considerable uncertainty in schools over far shorter periods than once every five years.

I want to turn to the Government's Statement, not the Opposition's. The Minister said yesterday, before the vote, that were it to be lost the Government would use their majority in the House of Commons to overturn that. I suspect that none of us doubted that that would be the case. But I urge the Government to use this opportunity, unwelcome though its cause is, to review the ballot arrangements.

I heard the Secretary of State in the other place this afternoon. Perhaps unlike the noble Baroness on the Opposition Front Bench, although I did not have a printed copy of the Statement, I took the opportunity to listen to it being made a couple of hours earlier. I heard the Secretary of State take comfort from the fact that at Ripon both sides of the argument felt the ballot had been rigged. A less emotive expression might be that the ballot system was flawed. He took comfort because he believed that if both sides thought it was wrong it was about right.

There is another explanation, which is that if both sides think the ballot was flawed maybe they are both right and the ballot system was flawed. So I urge the Government to look at that system. It cannot be right, just to use the Ripon example, that the children of one in four of the parents who took part in the ballot are in a private school and that parents who have their children in a grammar school are not entitled to vote.

My party has a much wider concern. We do not support the parental ballot at all, because, although parents are crucially important to schools, schools are part of the whole community, not just the property or interest of parents alone. Therefore, if those decisions are to be taken, they should be taken by the whole community or, more particularly, by the elected and democratic representatives of the whole community after full and proper consultation with that whole community.

Although the interruption is perhaps unwelcome, it provides an opportunity for the Government to put it to advantage. With the experience of one ballot which has now taken place and various attempts to get up a petition to call a ballot, they should review that process. We can all learn from experience and certainly this Government can do so. I hope that if they are not prepared to trust LEAs—and all the evidence is, and is again today, that they are not prepared to do so—they will at least look at the ballot system which is being used and make much-needed improvements to it.

The Secretary of State took the opportunity given to him by the Opposition to say a lot more about the Government's education policies. Indeed, he made an announcement in the House about today's initiative which has been announced in a six-page DIEE press release; namely, that of city academies.

Since the Minister has repeated that Statement, perhaps I may ask one or two questions about that.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am very sorry to interrupt the noble Lord because he has been on his feet for only a very few minutes indeed. But, as I understand it, the Select Committee on the Procedure of the House in its first report for the Session 1998–99 made the following ruling: While there will be exceptions, the time for the two Opposition front benches and the reply to them should be limited to 20 minutes, as for the backbenches". We are now on 18 minutes. That is not through any fault of the noble Lord. This is a Private Notice Question so one would not have thought that it was exceptional in that sense. I am sure that the House wants to hear my noble friend's reply to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord but I am afraid that she will not have sufficient time to answer appropriately to the House. I am sorry to have interrupted the noble Lord but that is the point I make.

Lord Tope

My Lords, of course I shall and wish to obey the rules of the House. But I protest most strongly. I have not had very much time at all. I did not want to intervene in the argument between the other two Front Benches. However, if the effect of one spokesperson speaking for far too long is to deny the other spokesperson any opportunity to say anything and, perhaps of even more concern to the House, to deny the Minister the right to reply effectively and properly to the points which have been made, then that procedure needs to be looked at and tightened up. But I shall not abuse the procedures of the House. I could not and would not do that.

Perhaps I may ask a few questions about the new city academies, as they are to be called. What significant differences are there to be between the city academies and the city technology colleges, which I recall the Minister's party was not too keen on? What are to be the admission arrangements for the new city academies?

There is more that I wish to say but in view of the points which have been made to me, I shall not do so.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I shall be extremely brief as I feel that I do not have much choice. But since most of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, were debating points rather than specific questions and since this is not the occasion to have a debate, I do not intend to do so.

I am sorry that the noble Baroness did not receive a copy of the Statement. I am certainly willing to look into that. But I do not believe that it is for my private office to provide copies of the Statement. That is a matter for the House authorities.

The noble Baroness said that there has been a "war of attrition". Once again she used a great deal of purple prose, repeating what was said yesterday. It is not the aim of this Government to have a war of attrition in any way. I repeat what I said yesterday and what was said by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State this afternoon. We intend to continue with our policies, which are to have the highest possible standards in all, not just a few, of our secondary schools and to allow parents the right to ballot in the small remaining number of places where grammar schools are still in existence.

The noble Baroness asked me about Labour politicians who have sent their children to schools where interviews or examinations still take place. I really do not think that it is right or proper for me to comment on private or personal choices made by my colleagues. I am rather surprised that the noble Baroness wants to spend so long on that.

She also raised the issue of selection and its continuation under this Government. She used examples of music and ballet schools and provision for special educational needs children. I merely say that it would be patently absurd—and I say this as somebody who has spent a lifetime with a passionate interest in ballet—to admit children to highly specialised schools providing an extremely specialised form of training without selecting them for talent. Most Members of this House would not have been able to go to a ballet school and would not have been able to benefit from it. That is totally different from a situation in which children are not going to highly specialised schools which are training for a particular talent but are going to schools offering a broad and wide-ranging curriculum.

To suggest that this Government discriminate against able children and treat them as pariahs is absolute nonsense, and the noble Baroness knows it. We have done a great deal to support good provision for gifted and able children and we shall continue to do so.

I turn now to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I am very sorry that he did not have a great deal of time to make the points that he wanted to. I agree with him entirely that the issue with which the Conservative Opposition seem so obsessed is not a mainstream issue. It is not something about which parents out there are concerned because 95 per cent of parents send their children to non-selective comprehensive schools. Many of them are delighted with the results which the best of those schools are able to provide. This Government are also determined to make sure that those comprehensive schools which are not performing as well as they should be are helped and supported so that they perform very much better.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked me about ballots. It is not our intention to make any changes to the system. We believe that we have the balance right and we shall continue to operate it in the way that it has been set up.

He asked about the new academies which have been announced today. It is very early days. The Government intend to consult with all the parties which are to be involved in the establishment of those schools. After that consultation period is over, we shall issue a prospectus and I shall be very happy to make sure that the noble Lord receives one.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, if one puts labels on children, they live up to those labels? The consequence of selection is that we label children. By making them live up to those labels, we contribute either to the problem of exclusion or the establishment of sink schools.

Does it not also devalue the quality of primary education where the head teacher, either because of professional ambition or parental pressure, concentrates far too much on the techniques of examination?

Does my noble friend accept also that if we have failing schools, they will not be turned round within a 12-month period, even if the person parachuted in is of the highest calibre? Does she agree that a longer period is needed in order to tackle the problems which failure brings about?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I accept entirely that labelling children as failures at the age of 11 is an extremely unfortunate practice. Many children and, indeed, children going through adolescence and right into adulthood have suffered from that process. They have felt stigmatised by it and have felt unable to escape from that labelling process. They have had no opportunity, as late developers, to make up for the fact that they were late developers. So I entirely agree with my noble friend on that matter.

It is important that we do all we can to turn around failing schools as quickly as possible. I am extremely pleased that those schools on special measures have been turned around much more quickly since the Government came to power than was the case previously. That is a indication of the Government's commitment to provide adequate support, resourcing staff with great commitment to help such schools. The time it takes for a failing school to be brought back to health has been reduced from 25 months at the time of the election to 17 months now.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I refer to the declaration of interests I made yesterday. Perhaps I may ask the Minister the following question. Something must have happened to have caused the Secretary of State in a number of performances last Sunday to execute the evolution, if not the volte-face that so annoyed the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, in our debate yesterday. What was it, and why did he do it?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am not sure to what the noble and learned Lord refers. I am not sure what particularly annoyed my noble friend Lord Hattersley yesterday. That really is a question to put to my noble friend Lord Hattersley.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I declare that I attended a grammar school; I met my wife at a grammar school; I taught in a grammar school—an excellent school which was vastly superior to the private schools littered around the place; and that my children went to a grammar school. From all that, I learned one thing: that to decide the future of a child at 11 is wrong. Selection at 11 transforms children's futures. Passing the 11-plus made all the difference to my life. If that had not happened, I do not know what would have happened to my career. It made a great deal of difference.

The question that I want to ask—obeying the rules of these debates—concerns failing schools. A school in my constituency is named after me. It is not a constituency throughout which large numbers of people pass the 11-plus. Who is to decide what constitutes a failing school? Will it be decided by the number of 0-levels—or whatever they are called these days—or A-levels passed? What is a "failing school"? A school may be doing well but not performing in a way that appeals to academics. Who is to decide?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I share my noble friend's view that failure at the age of 11 has blighted the lives of many young people, as I said in response to an earlier question. That is not to say that when there was a system of grammar schools, they did not provide many of us with a good education. I do not deny that, but it is a quite different point.

My noble friend asked what constitutes a "failing school". He will be aware that schools are regularly inspected and that it is through the inspection process carried out by Ofsted that schools are designated as "failing". On a whole variety of objective criteria, those schools are not doing the job that we expect of them. I am happy to send my noble friend more precise details of the criteria which Her Majesty's Chief Inspector considers when designating schools in that way.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, in the Statement, the Minister spoke about the academies which may replace failing schools. She said that such academies may specialise. If they specialise in certain subjects, will they not automatically become selective? Surely, if there is a specialised character to a school, that in itself will result in selection.

Baroness Blackstone

No, my Lords. Such schools will not become automatically selective. There are already a substantial number of specialist schools. Those schools do not select by ability and it is not our intention that the new city academies should do so.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws

My Lords, I am still reeling from the suggestion that the failure to raise standards over 18 years of government was the fault of Labour when the Conservatives were in control—

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I did not say that we failed to raise standards. I simply said that two thwarting factors were very material during those years.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws

My Lords, in relation to whether failure or success prevailed, will the Minister confirm that under the previous administration more than four in 10 pupils did not reach the expected levels in literacy and numeracy? What chance did those pupils have of succeeding in secondary education? Does she agree that standards would be undermined by the Conservative Opposition, who, they told us, would immediately remove the literacy hour and other measures which the Government have taken to raise standards in education?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords, I confirm that under the previous administration, more than four in 10 pupils did not reach the expected level for their age in literacy and numeracy. That has spelt disaster for the large numbers of young people who leave school with extraordinarily poor levels of literacy and numeracy. We are absolutely determined to turn round that situation. It is surprising that the party opposite has not given wholehearted support to our initiatives on literacy and numeracy and, indeed, to the many other ways in which we are turning around primary schools and improving the output of schools for young children.

shall give a few figures: 11 year-olds achieved higher standards than ever in the 1999 tests in English and Mathematics. At the time of the election, when the targets were set, 57 per cent of 11 year-olds reached the target expected for their age in English and 54 per cent did so in Maths. This year, the corresponding figures are 70 per cent and 69 per cent. It is particularly encouraging that nine out of 10 of the education authorities making the greatest gains are in deprived areas.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I return to the question of my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew. Clearly, the Minister has forgotten what the noble Lord. Lord Hattersley, said to her yesterday. My understanding of what the Secretary of State said—I am paraphrasing it; I do not have a note of it but I am repeating it from memory—was that he would like to draw a line under the issue, to stop hunting grammar schools, and to leave the matter as it is. Surely that is inconsistent with the Statement that the Minister has just read out.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I have not forgotten what my noble friend Lord Hattersley said yesterday. He made a long and highly eloquent speech in which he raised a great number of different issues. He made a number of criticisms of the Government and many more of the Conservative Opposition during their period in power. I have absolutely no idea to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, was referring. What my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said is entirely consistent with what he has said since 1995 when that policy was first set out at the Labour Party Conference. He has said the same thing again and again and he has done so today in the Statement which I repeated to this House.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, is not the real issue the question of raising educational standards in the 3,600 secondary schools up and down the land, not the admissions policy of 164 grammar schools? Is it not the case that we should like the Opposition to be obsessive about raising educational standards to satisfy the desire and needs of parents up and down the land who want to see resources going into our secondary schools in order to raise educational standards?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords, a number of speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Tope, have already referred to the Conservative Opposition's obsession with this particular issue. I have already said that I do not believe that it is an issue about which the vast majority of parents around the country are particularly concerned. We must focus on ways in which we can improve our secondary schools. Many schools could be improved. Many are doing a good job, but I am sure that the head teachers of even the best schools would welcome a commitment to doing all that we can to improve those schools, let alone those which are not performing as well as they might.

As I made clear yesterday, this Government are spending an extra 16 per cent in real terms on education in this Parliament. Over the course of the Parliament, the proportion of national income spent on education will rise, whereas in the previous Parliament it fell. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment set out a radical programme for raising standards in our secondary education, particularly at key stage 3. That is a crucial stage between 11 and 14 years, a phase of education that has been grossly neglected in the past. This is a real agenda, raising standards for all our pupils, but most particularly for those in disadvantaged communities.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, perhaps I may refer to a matter that occurred at the outset of these proceedings: namely, whether a copy of the Statement is to be vouchsafed to Opposition spokesmen. If an answer to a Private Notice Question is to be economically and constructively elucidated, surely there is every reason why it should be so vouchsafed. Could the matter perhaps be considered by the usual channels and preferably then by the Procedure Committee?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his intervention. He has made a sensible suggestion, that this matter should be considered by the usual channels and then, indeed, by the Procedure Committee. It is important that Opposition spokesmen should receive copies of Statements as soon as they can. I am surprised that the noble Baroness did not receive one.

Baroness Fookes

My Lords, why is the choice of a child for a school where ballet, for example, is a specialist item, not a form of selection?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I did not say that it was not a form of selection. The noble Baroness could not have been listening. I said that it was bizarre and absurd to suggest that there was something strange about the Government being selective through their music and ballet scheme. The scheme supports a small number of highly specialist institutions which provide training for those children who show great talent in a particular area such as ballet, music or playing an instrument. Of course they tend to be selected. These schools are about developing that talent. If a child does not have any such talent, it cannot benefit from such schools, which is what I said. The noble Baroness could not have been paying attention.

Baroness Fookes

My Lords, I thought that the government view was that there was to be no selection in general terms; that comprehensively, overall there would be no selection. Am I mistaken?

Baroness Blatch

That is what he said.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am afraid I am losing patience. I cannot believe that such obtuse questions can be asked. I have made clear that the Government are opposed to selection for standard secondary schools which cover a broad curriculum. The Government have never said that they are opposed to selection for highly specialised music or ballet schools. We have to have selection in those cases because only a tiny minority of children would be able to benefit from the curriculum they provide. They are, in part, training institutions as well as schools providing general education for people who need to be trained at a much earlier age than is normal because of the nature of the particular talent they have.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister agree—

Lord Bach

My Lords—

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we have not yet reached 20 minutes.

Lord Bach

My Lords, with great respect to the noble Baroness, the Front-Benchers have had their turn. The Back-Benchers have now had their turn. As I understand it, what normally happens at this stage is that we move on to the next business. If I am wrong, I am sure I shall be put right. The Front-Benchers have had their 20 minutes. The Back-Benchers have now had as long as they want. We should not return to the Front Bench.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the noble Baroness—

Noble Lords


Lord Puttnam

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness would help me. I echo the remarks of my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees. I went to a grammar school. I took my eleven plus at the age of 10. I only subsequently discovered, when I passed, what incredible anxiety it created for my parents, who literally became ill.

Most important, from the day I left primary school, I never again met or saw three quarters of the boys and girls with whom I was at that school. I cannot believe that anyone in this Chamber would wish that the opportunity for a life chance should be taken and lost or won at 10 and that communities could ever possibly be built on a system which strikes one quarter of the children away from three-quarters of the friends they made at primary school. It surely is insane. I really believed that we were moving into a sensible system of education which prevented that type of community and parental pressure and dreadful pressure on the children.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I strongly endorse the comments of my noble friend. One of the great disadvantages of the previous selective system was that it divided children into sheep and goats. It meant that children who had been at primary school together were separated. Some, as I have said earlier, were labelled as failures. Others were immediately defined as successes. It cannot be right to do that to 11 year-old children. That is why this Government oppose the principle of selection by ability in this context.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, apropos the answer to my noble friend Lady Fookes—

Noble Lords


Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, is it in order for a person who has asked a question from the Front Bench to move to the Back Bench in order to ask a question from the Back Bench as part of the time allocated to the Back Benchers? If it is, I seriously think that this is a matter which should be considered by the Procedure Committee.

Lord Tope

My Lords, if that is in order, I claim the right to move to the Back Bench and complete the statement I was to make but which the noble Baroness deprived me of the time for so doing. That is completely out of order and I trust that the authorities will consider it.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall put my question in writing to the noble Baroness.