HC Deb 08 December 1999 vol 340 cc259-65WH 12.30 pm
Sir Richard Body (Boston and Skegness)

I am grateful for this opportunity to express a concern that is felt by many thousands of people in Lincolnshire and shared by many people in other counties that still have the grammar school system. I also want to apologise to the Minister for School Standards for having caused her some inconvenience the other evening. As so often, on such occasions, the fault rests with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where I was waiting for a summons to come to the House, but it was not delivered.

I do not know whether the Minister is new Labour or old Labour, but it may not matter much because, whichever she is, one suspects that there is a natural antipathy to the independent sector—a feeling that those who can afford to give their children a private education should not do so. If that is the case, surely the answer is to raise the standards of the state sector so high that parents no longer need to send their children to independent schools and spend tens of thousands of pounds in so doing. That is exactly the position in Lincolnshire.

Lincolnshire is one of our largest counties. Its population includes many thousands of parents who could afford to send their children to be educated privately in one of our famous schools. However, one of the county's distinctive features is that it has no independent schools at secondary level, with the possible exception of Stamford, which is tucked away in the south-west corner of the county and attracts most of its pupils from ouside the county. Therefore, within the county itself, tens of thousands of parents who could afford to send their children to independent schools do not do so because they know that the standards in Lincolnshire are so high that it is unnecessary. Surely, that is the paradigm at which the Government should aim—a state sector so good that parents do not need to use the private sector and sacrifice much of their income to do so.

In Lincolnshire there are many grammar schools, which are open to pupils from whatever background and contain the widest possible social mix. In my constituency, there are many pupils whose parents are out of work and receiving state benefits. Sitting beside those children in the classrooms are children from affluent families. I would have thought that the Minister would approve of that desirable social mix.

Skegness grammar school was the first to apply for, and to receive, grant-maintained status. Having done so, it began to admit boarders. It now has 69 boarders, many of whom come from areas where the comprehensive system operates and is failing pupils. Parents feel that their children would be disadvantaged were they to send them to those schools, so they make the journey to Skegness, where they have found a school of the highest standards. Furthermore—I ask the Minister to bear this in mind—it is not only parents in the United Kingdom who send children to Skegness grammar school. Remarkably, there is now a waiting list of parents from outside the United Kingdom who want to send their children to the school. They come from as far afield as the far east—Hong Kong, for example. The school already has some pupils from the far east and from Germany. I do not know whether the Minister can think of any comprehensive school that attracts pupils from abroad because their parents believe that its standards are so outstandingly high that they wish to send their children across the seas to be educated there, but parents are sending their children to Skegness grammar school from abroad.

I have had the honour to represent the Skegness area for only the past two years. It is a smallish town of about 14,000 people. It is a holiday resort, the air is bracing and it is an excellent place in many ways, but it is not a town that would be instantly known to many people abroad. Despite that, parents are willing to make the journey from Germany and other countries to take advantage of the high-quality education offered there. I put it to the Minister that that is a remarkable fact. Skegness grammar school must be one of the only state sector schools that attracts pupils from outside the country, and has a waiting list of such pupils. Its headmaster has to turn people away and say, "I am sorry, but I cannot take any more pupils from abroad."

In case the Minister suggests that there is any form of elitism there, I emphasise that there is a very good social mix at Skegness grammar school, to which I have already alluded. Children whose parents are on social security are educated alongside children whose parents are extremely well off.

There are two other grammar schools, or the equivalent, in my constituency: Boston grammar school and Boston high school, both of which have extremely high standards. For many years, Miss Webb was the headmistress of Boston high school, and she attracted staff from the private sector who wanted to teach in her school. I am glad to say that the present headmaster is maintaining that high standard and is attracting staff from other countries to teach there. That also is remarkable.

The staff at those three schools—I suspect that the same applies to other grammar schools in the county—are apprehensive about the future. They have come to Lincolnshire to teach in those schools because they offer an intellectual challenge, and the staff appreciate the ambience—to use a somewhat overused word—to be found there. There might be an emphasis on academic work in those schools, but that encourages staff to apply for jobs there, and they would be reluctant to apply if the schools were part of the comprehensive system. Indeed, many of those staff have come from the comprehensive system, albeit the more academic streams of that system. I say to the Minister—I hope that she will bear this in mind—that many of those staff are worried about what the future holds and wonder whether they would be wise to start looking for posts in the private sector. We all know that morale among teaching staff is not high in the state sector at the moment. They believe that there is bureaucracy and that they have too little control over the decisions that are taken in their schools. That is not the case in the private sector, where staff morale is high. Too many teachers in Lincolnshire's grammar schools will look for new posts if they believe that the decision has been taken to merge their schools with secondary moderns. That would be a tragedy. The high standard in Lincolnshire's schools is due to high-quality staff. The danger is that if that quality is lowered, the schools will suffer.

The Minister could mention the ballot to allow the public to decide, but she knows, as I do—I shall not rehearse the arguments—that that will be loaded against the grammar schools. She might be interested to know that Lincolnshire county council has not always been Conservative. For four years, until two years ago, we had a Labour-Liberal coalition that was a little ambivalent about grammar schools, but it is mute now because it would be politically unpopular to raise the subject.

We have debated the issue in Lincolnshire. The debate began when Shirley Williams, as Secretary of State for Education, threatened the closure of our grammar schools. We fought and won a great battle, and I can detect no substantial feeling in the country against grammar schools, which are seen as a wonderful opportunity for boys and girls—however poor and disadvantaged they may be—to receive a first-class education that is as good as any in the private sector. Many have gone on to Oxford and Cambridge and, from there, to distinguished careers in the professions and elsewhere.

It would be a total tragedy to lose the remarkable blend of excellence without elitism. Elitism plays no part in education in Lincolnshire. I hope that the Minister will have kind words for our education system and assure both parents and staff that it will not be threatened. The issue has been debated over the years. Even the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party are quiet on the subject. We want to retain grammar schools without the threat of their closure. If the Minister is in doubt, she should visit the schools in Lincolnshire, which would impress her greatly.

12.44 pm
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body). Grammar schools are beacons of excellence in our education system. It is high time that their opponents learned the fundamental lesson that we shall never improve the rest of our schools by destroying some of the best of our schools.

The simple truth is that the ballot procedure is weighted against the grammar schools. I know that the Minister has strong views on this matter, but it would be unconscionable, under a Government who spout the mantra of support for the many, not the few, if we were, as we approach the next millennium, to replace selection according to ability to achieve with selection according to ability to pay. That would be a disgrace and a scandal, and the Conservative party would have nothing to do with it. We shall fight as the only national political party unequivocally committed to the retention of the outstanding grammar schools, some of which are in the county of Lincolnshire and one of which is in the constituency so admirably represented by my hon. Friend.

12.45 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment to chair these trial Adjournment debates. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) on securing the debate and thank him for his apology for failing to turn up the last time that we discussed a similar matter.

I accept the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman's words and what he says about the quality of education in the schools in his constituency. I join him in congratulating all nursery, primary and secondary school teachers in Boston and Skegness, and throughout Lincolnshire, on their work. It was interesting that we heard little about the schools in Boston and Skegness that are not grammar schools. We know, by definition of the system, that where there are grammar schools, there are secondary modern schools, which I think are called high schools in Boston and Skegness. I also want to record, as the hon. Gentleman did not, that in the non-grammar schools in his constituency there are strong teacher commitment, good teacher skills and a lot of student progress. We should appreciate all that teachers do in his constituency.

The Government have no antipathy to the independent sector. We have made more efforts to forge links and join partnerships with the independent sector than the Conservatives did. The sector has welcomed the independent-state school partnership funding that we have made available. However, I agree that it would be intolerable if parents believed that the only way to get a good education was to go to the independent sector. I defend a parent's right to buy an education for their child. Our responsibility is to ensure that parents are not forced to make that choice because there are no good schools elsewhere.

Where I differ from the hon. Gentleman is that I do not believe that the only way to assure parents that they need not buy education is to offer them a selective school system. Throughout the country, non-selective local authority comprehensive schools are getting good results even though they teach children across the ability range. The hon. Gentleman asked whether parents who live abroad are queueing up to send their children to comprehensive schools. Funnily enough, on a radio interview about primary performance tables this morning, which I did not know about before 7 am, I was asked what I thought about a small maintained nonselective school in Oxfordshire which parents from America were queueing up to send their children to because of its good literacy and numeracy results.

Let us not fall into the trap of thinking that the only good schools are those in the selective system. If we take the view that the only way to get high standards is to have grammar schools, we must admit that we cannot meet the challenge of raising standards for every child. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who seems to be the Opposition spokesman on grammar schools, is vociferous on this issue. He pledged that his Government, if there ever is one, would be committed to keeping grammar schools. That is the Conservatives' problem. This Government are committed to raising standards in 24,000 schools, not to keeping good standards in only 164 schools. That is the challenge. I accept that there are good standards in grammar schools, but the crusade for our school service is greater than that; it is about how we meet the needs of the country so that we have a work force, a population and a learning community in which standards rise for everyone.

There is a debate about whether the best way to raise standards and achieve excellence for everyone is to have selective education, but that is the wrong question. We have successfully announced and published performance tables for literacy and numeracy at primary school level. They show that, with good teaching and good strategies, and working from best practice with properly funded schools, training and support for teachers and, above all, clear, high expectations of everyone in the education service, we can raise standards in every school. Today's literacy and numeracy results show that, whether in urban or rural areas, poor or affluent areas, areas where they thought they could not do it or areas where they have always been sure that they could, with the right mixture of good teaching and proper leadership we can raise standards across the board. We must achieve that for the whole system.

I mention that because it proves that our task is do-able. I am not content to leave this country's future—or its children's future—to the risk of whether children can get into a grammar school. If the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness had said that his constituency had a system of grammar schools and secondary modern schools all of which raised standards for all children, we might have had a different debate.

Mr. Bercow


Ms Morris

I will give way shortly, because I promised, but I remind the hon. Member for Buckingham that in his note he said that he would not make a speech—and he has had the opportunity to do so.

If the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness had made the argument that I described, the debate might have been different. However, clearly that our challenge is not to defend the future admission arrangements of 164 schools, but to ensure that we raise standards in 24,000 schools. We must do that. Grammar schools were set up when this country needed only a few children to achieve the highest levels, and they delivered that, but the debate has moved on and the task now is to construct a system that raises standards for everyone.

I want to make one more point; then I shall give way to the hon. Member for Buckingham. I assure the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness that he should not feel downhearted. I appreciate that his experience as a Member of Parliament representing an area with selective education; on the whole, that is not my experience, though there are a small number of selective schools in my constituency. My teaching experience took place in an authority that was highly comprehensive. Across a range of local authorities and schools, the highest-achieving 24 per cent. in comprehensive schools achieve at the same level as those in grammar schools—the figure is about 24 per cent. in most local authorities. Therefore the bright children who are educated in local education authorities with no selection achieve at the level of those who are taught in selective schools. The evidence shows that children who achieve at high levels can do so whether they go to a selective or comprehensive school.

Mr. Bercow


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. I feel compelled to point out that this is not a general debate. It is a 30-minute Adjournment debate which, under the conventions of the House, is an opportunity for individual hon. Members to speak directly with and gain responses from Ministers; it should not be an opportunity for Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen to intervene. On this occasion, as the Minister has allowed it, it may happen, but it is extraordinary and it will not create a precedent.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful for that guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall take note of it. I am also grateful to the Minister for her generosity in giving way. Will she accept that she cannot get away with painting the Conservative party as the supporter of only grammar schools? I myself attended a comprehensive school and I accept the importance of supporting good schools of whatever structure. The Minister said that it was standards, not structure, that mattered.

I think that it is clear that the Minister is hostile to selection, but will she now answer a question that she has previously always ducked? If she had a vote in a grammar school ballot, would she answer the ballot question yes or no?

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman has put on the record his views about what the Conservative party defends. I am happy for people to read the record and compare his intervention with what he said earlier.

I turn to the current arrangements for grammar school ballots. We have set up a mechanism whereby local people can decide what a school's future admission arrangements should be. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness rightly said that this has always been an issue. As far back as I can remember, the presence or absence of selective admission arrangements has been a political and an educational issue that has never gone away. It was an issue for Mrs. Thatcher when she was Secretary of State for Education—that is why she changed the admission arrangements in more grammar schools than anyone else—it was an issue for the Labour party when it was last in government and it is an issue now.

Given that the issue will not go away, there are three ways of deciding whether to change admission arrangments. We can decide on it as a Government; we can let the local authority decide; or we can give the power to decide to parents. We have said that we shall give that power to parents. It is not an option to decree that there should be no more debate on the future admission arrangements of grammar schools; that will just not happen. I shall explain why I think that we have done the right thing, and I shall also answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham.

We have made our decision because, as a Government who are committed to education in a way that no previous Government have been committed to it, we shall succeed or fail by what we do for the school system, not what we do about the admission arrangements in 164 schools. If we take our eye off the ball to join that hugely contentious debate, we risk wasting our resources, energy and time. I am glad that I have spent the past year supporting schools in their introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies, which the hon. Member for Buckingham would not make schools maintain. I am also glad that I will—if it is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wants me to do—spend the next year raising standards through "Excellence in Cities", and education action zones rather than arguing about grammar school ballots, which is what would have happened. We have taken the pragmatic view that our time is better spent on other matters.

One can argue that we should not have given parents the right to determine admission arrangements, but one cannot say that we should not have the debate and there should be no mechanism for changing those arrangements. The issue is contentious, but we cannot deny parents who want to change admission arrangements the right to do so. We must give someone somewhere the authority and the mechanism to allow that change to be made if that is what people want.

Nothing is set in stone. Politics must always allow for a mechanism for change. I am happy to defend our decision to put the potential for change in the hands of parents. It would be silly if, having spent considerable legislative time on that and having been determined not to get personally embroiled in the argument about selective schools, I fell into the trap of the hon. Member for Buckingham by answering his question directly. He knows—because we say it—that the Government do not want more selection and we do not think that more selection is the key to raising standards across the board. We are, however, happy to do our best with the school system that we have to raise standards for every child. I am not a parent, so I will not answer the hon. Gentleman's question—although it is difficult not to, because I keep being asked it.

I shall finish by paraphrasing what the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness said, because I strongly agree with him. Reflecting on the good schools in his constituency, he said that they were good because they had good teachers. He is dead right. Those schools are good because they have good teachers, not because of their admission arrangements. If a school has to rely on its admission arrangements to achieve good results, I would question its quality of teaching, learning and management as well as its focus and curriculum. I pay tribute to the schools about which the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness talked and I am confident that if their teachers were to teach in schools without selective admission arrangements, their skills and professionalism would serve any child well. I leave the future of the admission arrangements of the schools in the hon. Gentleman's consituency exactly where they should be: in the hands of the parents whose children will be most affected.

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