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The difficulty with many of those things is that they require a subjective judgment about whether the school has used that information in coming to a decision on admissions. My fears were fuelled by an ICM poll published in the press a few months ago, which suggested that one in four head teachers cheat on their selection criteria to cherry-pick pupils. The latter aspect of that concerned me most: they were quite specific that they do it to cherry-pick pupils. If a head teacher cheats, that undermines trust in the system. It undermines the trust of parents, students and other schools in the same local authority area. Above all, it undermines the Government’s good work and their efforts to improve admissions and tackle covert selection by introducing a code that is welcome in many ways.

The safest way to remove the danger of cheating is to allow someone else to administer the system. New clause 24 would allow schools to continue to set their own criteria in accordance with the code. Under that code, admissions criteria must be objective. They must not be subjective, and they must be easily understood. However, if they are objective, why must the school administer them? Anyone could do so, as they could be written down and measured. It would be better to give the duty to an impartial body. The local authority, which oversees and co-ordinates strategic provision, is best placed to administer the system. It does not have any incentive to cheat as it does not favour one school over another. It simply wants all its schools to do well and to raise standards across the area.


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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The hon. Lady takes the view that local authorities do not have any reason to favour one school over another in admissions. Does she accept that if a school is undersubscribed the local authority may have an incentive to try to move pupils into it?

Sarah Teather: It would have to act in accordance with the code and, indeed, with the selection criteria submitted by the schools and admissions authorities. We have included a safety net so that if a school believes that the administering authority has not administered admissions in accordance with its own selection criteria, it can appeal to the admission forum.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Lady appears to accept that the local education authority may not be unbiased and impartial. Why, therefore, is it better at administering admissions than the school itself?

Sarah Teather: No, I do not accept that. The local authority is far more likely than a school to be impartial, as it does not have an incentive to favour one school over another or to improve the standard of only a few schools. We have seen a great deal of evidence of cheating by schools, so to increase confidence in the system we must try to give the administration of the system to an impartial body. That would help to iron out the problem of cheating to which Members have drawn attention, including prior knowledge of the family. A child’s brothers and sisters may be pupils at the school, or staff may have met parents at parents’ evenings. In Committee, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) highlighted the case of a faith school in London. Various procedures allow parents up to half a dozen contacts with the school before they submit an application. It is therefore unreasonable to assume that a school would not have prior knowledge of a family in such cases.

New clause 24 proposes that admissions criteria should be set by the relevant admissions authority, whether the school or the local authority, in accordance with the code. Those policies would then be submitted to a named local authority officer, who administers admissions in accordance with the criteria. Parents would apply centrally to the local authority, which would make application a great deal easier. Obviously, this is not the case in London, but in some areas parents are forced to submit applications to successive schools. Parents would state their preferred school and the authority would sort the applications, matching the children against schools’ criteria.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): How would that system deal with applications across a local authority boundary? There are a considerable number of such applications.

Sarah Teather: There is no reason why local authorities should not work together on the system.

The key point is that the names of applicants should be kept from the schools. Obviously, applicants are not completely anonymous, as names are required for administrative purposes, but the proposal would deal with the problem of cheating. The local authority
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would send acceptance letters to parents and inform schools of decisions. Under the system, head teachers and governors would not see the list of names, so they would not be able to pick out difficult parents or children who are in trouble. In response to our debate in Committee, we have added extra protection so that if schools believe that the local authority has failed to administer the system in accordance with the criteria, they can apply to the admission forum for a review. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bury will speak to his new clause 46, which is similar to our new clause. The Local Government Association believes that the proposal would improve the transparency of the system, and individual councils are enthusiastic about it. Teaching unions have expressed concern about allowing schools more freedom to set admissions. They, too, favour a more co-ordinated system. New clause 24 allows schools to continue to set their own criteria, but it removes the danger of cheating.

New clause 39 leaves decisions on selection at 11 to local discretion, but it reverses the presumption in favour of selection, which would cease to exist unless local people asked for it in a ballot. That is a sensible way forward, and we shall support the proposal if it is pressed to a vote. As all Front-Bench spokesmen no longer favour selection, and would certainly not re-introduce it, I hope that, despite the fact that the issue was once divisive, the proposal will unite the entire House.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con) rose—

Sarah Teather: I am afraid that I have finished.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), who seems to have a skewed view of the principled stance taken by head teachers. I do not believe that there is mass cheating by head teachers who deliberately manipulate the admissions system to boost their results. If that is happening, we need to take action against head teachers who are behaving in such an unprincipled way, but I do not believe that it happens to the extent that she suggested.

Listening in Committee to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) speaking about admissions, and to other Labour Members over the years, it is hard not to conclude that the new clauses tabled by him and his colleagues are driven primarily by ideology, rather than by a concern for raising standards in our schools. That ideology is based on the notion that the quality of a school is determined solely or largely by the intake of the school. That is not true. What makes a good school is the quality of the teaching, the quality of the head’s leadership, and the ethos and approach to behaviour and discipline taken by the school.

There are schools in extremely deprived parts of the country where behaviour is impeccable because the head has in place strong systems and procedures that ensure that poor behaviour is dealt with swiftly and predictably. There are schools in leafy county towns that have appalling behavioural problems because of weak leadership. There are schools that have intakes where the most academic pupils have been creamed off
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to the local grammar school, yet those schools achieve examine results higher than most comprehensive schools.

3.30 pm

Wellington high school in Trafford, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), is in effect a secondary modern school, where the 40 per cent. most academic go to the grammar school. At Wellington high school last year, 73 per cent. achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, 66 per cent. including English and Maths, and there are no GNVQs in that figure. That figure—73 per cent.—is way above the national average of 56 per cent.

By contrast, there are many schools in leafy prosperous towns and suburbs that languish with just 35 per cent. achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, and in a number of cases schools with much worse results. In a small minority of schools, the intake can be so challenging that it becomes overwhelming and we need to intervene, but in the vast majority of the 3,500 secondary schools, the intake is largely not as relevant as what happens within the school.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman believes what he is saying about the intake, can he explain the Sutton Trust figures that show that the best performing comprehensive schools have the lowest proportion of children on free school meals?

Mr. Gibb: The hon. Lady is making the same point as the hon. Member for Brent, East, who is leading for the Liberals. I do not believe that head teachers throughout the country are deliberately manipulating their intakes to boost their results. There may be a small number of exceptions to that premise, but I do not believe that it is happening on a large scale. It is not possible to engineer an intake to accurately reflect the local population to the last detail. I suspect that most of those results are capricious, rather than deliberately manipulated.

Sarah Teather: The problem is that heads have admitted that. It is not as though someone has done a survey and suspected that the system may have been manipulated. A Headspace survey reported that 38 per cent. of head teachers admitted breaking their own criteria.

Mr. Gibb: I have not met such a head teacher when I have been going round. I ask head teachers, “Are you on principle and deliberately manipulating your intake?” and they always tell me no. [Laughter.] The point that I am making is a more serious one. Even if head teachers are unprincipled and are manipulating their intakes to boost their results and those do not reflect the quality of the school generally, my argument is that the intake is largely irrelevant to the quality of the school. It is the teachers, the leadership, the ethos and the behavioural policies that make for a good school, not the intake, whether that is manipulatedor not.


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Mr. Brady: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying such glowing tribute to Wellington high school in my constituency, which is an excellent school. May I support the excellent case that he is making with another useful statistic? In the value-added league tables, of the 21 schools adding most value between the ages of 11 and 14, 18 were grammar schools. That surely proves exactly the point that my hon. Friend is making—that is it what happens inside the school, rather than the quality of the intake that is most important. The value added in the grammar schools is even better.

Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The value added tables reveal which schools are genuinely adding value, regardless of the intake. They measure the added value to the particular child, based on their ability level and attainment before they arrived at the school. My hon. Friend’s point is well made.

I believe that, at the vast majority of the 3,500 secondary schools, the intake is largely irrelevant. If we ensure that all academic subjects taught in the school are set or streamed by ability, the intake is even less relevant, because if we ensure that classes are made up of children of a similar ability, the ability levels elsewhere in the school have no impact on that class. The problem in many of our comprehensive schools is that the vast majority of academic lessons are taught in mixed ability classes. According to Ofsted, 60 per cent. of lessons are in mixed ability classes: 49 per cent. of English lessons, 69 per cent. of geography lessons and 71 per cent. of history lessons are mixed ability. Even in science, where setting is even more important, a third of lessons take place in mixed ability classes.

Annette Brooke: Can the hon. Gentleman give us some indication of the ages to which his figures relate? It is often difficult to set by ability at age five, even when the children might be doing simple science lessons. Does he agree that a whole range of subjects, including PE and art, are perfect for social integration to take place?

Mr. Gibb: The hon. Lady makes a good point. First, all the figures that I have cited are for secondary schools. Secondly, I am talking only about academic subjects—this is not about PE or any other non-academic subject. We do not disagree on that.

Helen Jones: May I try to tease out some more precise figures from the hon. Gentleman? Does he have any information on the age range for which mixed ability teaching is used in secondary schools? It is quite common for secondary schools to begin teaching subjects in mixed ability classes and move to setting later on. That will affect his percentages for subjects such as history, because all children will take them to begin with, but fewer will do so once options are chosen.

Mr. Gibb: The hon. Lady could be making a valid point, but the figures do not show that. She is right in that there is a slightly higher proportion of mixed ability teaching in year 7, but it does not vary much beyond that. In fact, in the GCSE year, it dips from the
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previous year, so that there is less setting than in the year before. Broadly speaking, it goes right across the five years of secondary education and is not confined to year 7. Even if it were, that would be an error too. We need to set and stream by academic subject in all years in secondary schools.

Maths has the highest proportion of lessons set by ability—86 per cent. That still means, if my maths is correct, that one in seven maths lessons in comprehensive schools takes place in mixed ability classes. That is very much a linear subject that should not be taught in mixed ability classes. Again, this is not confined to year 7 classes.

There is overwhelming evidence, particularly research by Jim Kulik of the University of Michigan, that if one sets by ability and tailors the curriculum to each ability grouping, with accelerated and enhanced curricula for the most academically able sets, one will see a huge rise in educational attainment in the top sets, with no falls in attainment in the lower ability set. The research also shows a small rise in self-esteem in the lower sets as pupils are given the time, space and attention to learn rather than drowning in a mixed ability group. At the top end, there is a small fall in self-esteem as bright pupils find themselves competing with other bright children.

Anne Snelgrove: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that rigid setting is as bad as blanket mixed ability teaching? Perhaps we should be looking at banding instead of rigid setting, so that young people who would be in a top set in mathematics but a bottom set in English have ways of moving about in that band.

Mr. Gibb: The hon. Lady uses the term, “rigid”. Setting is by definition flexible—that is how it differs from streaming. The more homogenous a particular group of children is, the easier it is to teach them and the better able one is to tailor the curriculum to that particular set level. There is a philosophical divide between us—I will not be able to convince the hon. Lady—but I hope that through these debates we can convince the public that this is the kind of education that we want for our children.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): The hon. Gentleman speaks with great conviction on these issues, and in many ways I agree with him about setting. I find the Ofsted figures difficult to understand in terms of the level of mixed ability teaching. However, I have a specific question for him. If there is general agreement across the House, and within the educational fraternity, that setting is a good thing that should be used in all academic subjects, does that mean that the Conservative party has now ceased to advocate grammar schools and selection by ability? If we followed his thesis, we would not need it.

Mr. Gibb: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has seen the text of my speech. I am about to deal with that precise point, if he will hold his horses for a moment. I am not a million miles from his view.

Such issues are more important than whether a group of children has access to an especially good school or whether a different group of children should
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have access to it. All that debates about admission, codes and prescriptive methodologies for determining intakes do is substitute one set of injustices for another. The genuine problem is that there are simply not enough good schools. If there were more good schools, the heartache and anger of parents who are unable to get their child into their preferred option would be less.

The National Audit Office report has been much cited in the two days of debate on Report. It reported that 23 per cent. of secondary schools underperform and that it is likely that a similar proportion is coasting. Ofsted reports that 34 per cent. of secondary schools are no more than satisfactory according to its grading system and that a further 10 per cent. are inadequate. Forty-four per cent. of schools are therefore either satisfactory, which we no longer regard as good enough, or inadequate. That is a sad and alarming indictment of our education system.

No one claims that the causes started in 1997, and they did not start under the previous Conservative Government. They date back more than 40 years. We all need to tackle the underlying causes in a practical and non-ideological way. We must examine the evidence of what works and not what fits our ideological stance. It is clear from the research evidence and the success of schools that set that, when comprehensive schools set all their academic subjects by ability in all year groups—with flexibility, so that children who develop later in a subject can move up to a higher ability group—and have smaller classes with more experienced teachers focusing on the lower attainment groups, far-reaching improvements occur in the quality of education in those schools.

If we can recreate in the top sets the academic education that grammar schools and many independent schools offer their pupils—an education that stretches children academically and enables them to fulfil their educational potential with an enhanced or accelerated curriculum—there is no need to undergo the upheaval of reintroducing the 11-plus and selection, and re-establishing grammar and secondary modern schools in areas where they were abolished more than 30 years ago.

Anne Snelgrove: There will be no need to reintroduce the 11-plus because a grammar stream will be created in an alleged comprehensive school. That is why I questioned the hon. Gentleman closely earlier. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) will be delighted by the news, but we should warn the general public that that is what the Conservative party intends. It is not right. Children could be prevented from going further and faster by the policies that the hon. Gentleman proposes because they would be excluded from the grammar stream.

Mr. Gibb: No, I do not propose that. We are trying to create a grammar school sort of education for the top sets in a school. Because the school would be on one campus with a setted structure, there is flexibility so that children who might have gone to a secondary modern at 11 but develop later, when they are 13 or 14, can move up the sets into the grammar stream. The grammar stream would not have a glass ceiling, which prevents children below from getting into it. There would be flexibility. Children could well be in the
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grammar stream for English but not maths. The purpose is to enable us to have the grammar school type education that the country needs but to make it flexible so that children of all abilities can move into those sets if they develop. It is precisely the opposite of what the hon. Lady suggests.

Ms Keeble: Does the Conservative party intend to scrap its commitment to grammar schools, or is the hon. Gentleman saying that it will scrap it but not just yet? What is he saying about Conservatives’ commitment to grammar schools and the 11-plus?

Mr. Gibb: I said that we would not reintroduce the 11-plus and selection. We are committed to getting all academic subjects in all years in secondary school setted by ability in a flexible system. I probably share the hon. Lady’s view that the binary division that took place at 11 with the 11-plus was socially divisive. It is uncomfortable for me to see children who have been friends at primary school being forced to attend separate campuses, with one turning right at the end of the road and the other turning left. That is why the Conservative party has taken the position that it will not bring back selection when it returns to office. Nor did we do so when we were last in office.


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