HL Deb 07 March 2002 vol 632 cc392-5

3.23 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many local education authorities there are in England; how many have selection procedures for entry to secondary schools; and what action the Government are taking to end all selection procedures.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, there are 150 local education authorities in England, and 164 secondary schools in 36 authorities select all their pupils by academic ability. No new selection by academic ability can be introduced, and we have put in place procedures enabling parents locally to decide whether they wish to end existing grammar school selection.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many government supporters are deeply disappointed by the slow progress on the policy of ending selection altogether? Does not experience over many years show that not only is selection at 11 or the use of the 11-plus examination inaccurate; it also causes tremendous problems in later years? Is the Minister aware that in recent opinion polls parents have shown overwhelming opposition to selection at 11?.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I share my noble friend's concern about selection at 11. It is important to recognise that children develop in different ways and at different times. I have long worried about the concept of deciding at 11 that a child has failed. However, we are committed to allowing parents the opportunity to decide. We have put in place a system which, we believe, is as fair as possible and allows parents to make that choice. We have no plans to amend that process.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, contrary to what she said in her Answer, under the wide powers in Clause 2 of the Education Bill, which will receive its Second Reading in this House on Monday, it will be possible to expand selection so long as it is linked with innovation and rising standards?.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I look forward to debating the Education Bill with the noble Baroness. The power to innovate, which is part of the Bill, is about being able to remove legal impediments to innovation in schools. The example that I shall use in our debates is that of a school that might wish to introduce a continental-style timetable. We are committed to ensuring that we do not allow selection by ability. That will not change.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that only about 7 per cent of specialist schools use their ability to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude, whatever that is? The Government might as well scrap that provision. Will the Minister join me in welcoming that small percentage? It shows that most specialist schools are committed to the comprehensive principle, even if the Government are not.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the Government are committed to the comprehensive principle. As the noble Baroness will know, there are 685 specialist schools, of which 30 are grammar schools. Those that select would perhaps have selected under other systems; they are normally former grant-maintained schools. Indeed, some of those schools have decided not to select by aptitude because it does not suit them to do so.

The ability to select is there for schools which believe that it will enable them to develop their specialism on top of what they do in the national curriculum. The obvious examples, which I have cited many times in your Lordships' House, are concerned with PE, sport and performing arts. We do not support selection by ability.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, will the Minister cast her mind beyond the insular attitude of her party and consider that, across the Channel, where there is selection, people choose schools related to the abilities of children—vocational, academic and so on? Does the Minister recognise that some children benefit from being at an academic school and some benefit from being at a vocational school? Why not abandon the past and allow that the grammar schools have contributed? The Government's real problem is that they are not prepared to face the issue of vocational schools. Cannot the Minister break away from the ideological battles of the past?.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord will agree with me that one of the difficulties with his question is how we define the words "academic" and "vocational". Some of our great vocational trades and professions—medicine, for example—require high academic standards. They are false labels.

In the past, the difficulty was that we chose a system that decided that, at 11, somebody was better than somebody else. We have no wish to return to that; we wish to ensure that children and young people can follow the career route to their profession or trade that best enables them to achieve their full potential. That is best done, not in a system that says to children of 11 that their route has been chosen but in one that allows them to have a breadth of experience, recognising that in the past we have used false labels.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, for most people—if not all—in local authorities who decided things for the education committees that they managed, it was not a question of something being better or worse? There was a recognition that children are different, one from another, and that a good education service ought to cater for those who are different and more academic than others.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I recognise the excellent work that people have done on education committees for many years. I make no criticism of them for that work. However, there is no doubt in my mind—and I went to a grammar school—that, whether the intent was there or not, those from my area who attended schools that were not grammar schools did not receive the kind of education that I did: it was different. For many of them, it was considered to be not only different but lesser than the education I received.

I accept that children must have the ability to explore different educational paths. Some will end up doing sciences, as opposed to languages; for others, art or music will be foremost in their mind. We are not saying that all children are the same; we are saying quite the opposite. One of the big thrusts behind the Education Bill is to recognise that children and schools are different. That is a given. We are saying that no one child is better than another with that distinction being made at the age of 11.