HL Deb 29 October 2003 vol 654 cc255-7

2.36 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they intend to take to change selective secondary schools to comprehensive schools.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, we have no plans to change selective secondary schools to comprehensives. We have put in place mechanisms to allow local decision making on selection.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. After so many years of exposing the inadequacy of the 11 -plus examination, why do we still permit some local education authorities to continue with it? At least two LEAs still do so. I say this to my noble friend in particular given that Labour governments have made the abolition of this examination their clearly stated objective. If the Government say that it is a matter of choice, which is implied in my noble friend's reply, who will accept responsibility for the literally hundreds of failures of this examination among young folk? Failure can devastate not only their careers but their lives.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend is very knowledgeable on these issues and he will know that the context in which we discuss selection is very marginal to secondary education provision in this country. Of over 20,000 secondary schools, only 164 are grammar schools. As I indicated in my reply, the reason why grammar schools are retained is because local opinion expresses itself in those terms.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, was it not Alastair Campbell, speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister, who referred to "bog standard schools"? Does the Minister agree that it would be far more sensible for the Government to concentrate on de-bogging bog standard schools than mess about with schools which are working very well?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am not sure that Alastair Campbell was speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister on that occasion, and he certainly was not speaking on behalf of his wife who, over recent months and years, has been fervent in her campaign in support of the comprehensive principle. However, I accept one point made by the noble Lord; namely, that it is important to concentrate on improving standards. We are proud of our record in terms of the improvements made over recent years and, as I hope will be conveyed to the House in the very near future, we intend to continue with that strategy of improvement by providing the necessary resources.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, on the question of standards, does my noble friend agree that the evidence from Kent, which has a highly selective educational system, is that not only do less bright children do less well than in other parts of the country, but the same is true of the brighter children also? Is not that the evidence which shows that selective education works against the interests of very many children?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the issue of the significance of selection has been debated for many years and even those who are most fervent in espousing the concept of selection—encompassing most, if not all, of the Conservative Party; I retract that: not all, some enlightened members of that party have not favoured selection—acknowledge that the benefits are concentrated on those who are selected. They have not paid attention to research into the effect of selection on others.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, could not the whole House rally behind the fact that the vast majority of school-age children go to comprehensive schools? Instead of slagging off those schools in one way or another, should we not do everything possible to raise and continue to raise standards in comprehensive schools to everyone's benefit and to the benefit of equality of opportunity?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I agree entirely with those sentiments and I am sure that the noble Lord has expressed the general feeling in this House. He will recognise, as I mentioned earlier, that raising standards requires the Government to be committed to providing the necessary resources. We shall be giving direct evidence of that commitment shortly.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in Essex, the 11-plus examination is voluntary and no one needs to take it if they do not want to do so? Indeed, the vast majority of children do not take it. We are very proud of our comprehensive schools as well as our selective schools.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that contribution. I think that it is recognised across the country as a whole that the best strategy for improving the quality of education and raising the standards which our students reach is not to opt for selection at the age of 11, thereby creating rejection among those who are not selected.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, are there any plans to reverse the Greenwich and Kingston judgments which enable selective schools to recruit pupils from far and wide outside their areas?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, there are no plans to do so at present because, as I have indicated, the number of selective schools is so small as to be on the margin of education provision in this country.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the year-on-year increase in GCSE qualifications must be a tribute to the achievements of our comprehensive schools because most children go to them?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for making that point. The whole House will recognise that there have been significant improvements in the standards achieved by our young people, for which great credit must be paid to their teachers, to their parents and, most of all, to the young people themselves. But, of course, the question of structure does arise. It is of benefit that comprehensive education has extended the opportunity for young people to sit examinations and to pass them adequately, which is much beyond expectations many years ago when the country had a selective system.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, will my noble friend now answer my specific question—who is responsible for the failures? He will readily accept that, where there is a selective system, for every child who passes the 11-plus there will be at least five or six who do not. Who is responsible for the failures, the LEAs or the Government?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I recall that at one stage in his distinguished past my noble friend was an education officer. He will know that each local authority is responsible for education provision in its area. In those few areas where selection is still maintained, that is also the responsibility of the local authority.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, is the Minister prepared to congratulate Ms Diane Abbott on the courage she has shown in her choice of school for her child?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I thought that that question might arise. I also thought that I had not too adequate an answer given that, on the whole, this noble House refrains from commenting upon individuals in the other place. I propose to follow the norms of the House.