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School Standards and Framework Bill

4.46 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood moved Amendment No. 176AA:

After Clause 96, insert the following new clause--

Report on transport implications of school admissions arrangements

(" .--The Secretary of State shall lay a report before Parliament one year after the commencement of this section which examines the operation of this Part with a view to assessing the implications for the school transport service, the distance which pupils travel to school, and the environmental impact of the new arrangements for school admissions.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 176AA standing in the name of my noble friends. The amendment places an obligation on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on the implications of this part of the Bill for the school transport service, the distance which pupils travel to school and the environmental impact of the new arrangements for school admissions.

There are several areas within the Bill which have the potential to increase the cost of school transport. The amendment draws attention to some of those and asks the Secretary of State to report to Parliament not only on the cost to local authorities of providing school transport arising out of changes made in the Bill but also on the environmental impact of those changes.

There is increasing concern about the damage to children and to the environment as a result of the school run. Thirty years ago it was said that 90 per cent. of children walked to school. The figure is now much smaller, perhaps 20 per cent., with most children of primary-school age being accompanied by an adult. The long-term physical development of youngsters who are driven rather than walk to school is of concern. Noble Lords may remember that a recent study showed that in children who carried heart monitors for a week the heart-beat hardly raised during the course of the week. They were not taking the exercise which is the essential foundation for health in later life, unlike those who, like myself, were forced to play games every day of the school week, whether we liked it or not. It is also a

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matter of concern that children lose the opportunity to develop as independent individuals if they are always accompanied to school.

The amendment focuses on the cost and the environmental impact--the damage done to the environment if more cars are on the streets. We have frequently debated in this House the impact of the school run on congestion on our roads in the morning rush hour, when it has the most impact. We have also debated the effect of that congestion upon the environment and on peoples' health.

Several areas of the Bill have an impact on transport costs, including reducing parental choice via class size limits so that children have to travel further to school; school organisation, if the new school planning system does not work; but, in particular, the admissions policy. We feel strongly that admissions policies ought to ensure that there is a local place for every child and that there should be an end to the great distances that some children travel in the name of parental choice.

Finally, I should like to make a different point. This Government, I am happy to admit, are convinced of the importance of an integrated transport system and of integrating government policy across different departments. At a local level, county councillors and others who have responsibility for education have grappled with the problem of school transport and how to provide it in a period of increasing school choice. They also have the responsibility, in most cases, for highways and transport in general. They have therefore had to face up to the need to combine thinking on education with thinking on transport and the environment. Many councils have environmental policies which stretch right across their various departments.

The amendment seeks to ask whether it is time that, at a government level, a similarly integrated approach on matters of the environment and its major concomitant--transport--should be undertaken. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, this amendment would require the Secretary of State to present a one-off report to Parliament on the operation of the new school admission arrangements. The report would assess the transport, distance and environmental impact of those arrangements.

I understand the noble Baroness's intentions in tabling this amendment. But we do not believe it to be sensible for the Bill to require such a report. Protecting our environment is a high priority for this Government. In the election manifesto we made a commitment to put the environment at the heart of government, and that is exactly what we are doing.

I note also that the noble Baroness referred to our integrated transport policies which again we are now pursuing. In general, we are working to reduce car dependency. The noble Baroness will be pleased to know that that includes targeting the "school run". However, there is a danger of falling into the trap of assuming that the more distant the school, the worse are

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the consequential environmental effects. I am sorry to say that many parents still drive their children to school even when the journey is less than one mile.

Again, I accept what the noble Baroness says about the need for young people to take exercise and no doubt she is right in drawing our attention to the study which showed that the heartbeat of young people was not raised during a whole week. However, it could well be less harmful to the environment for those children to use public transport or to cycle to a more distant school. The interaction between a school's admissions policy and the use of public transport, walking or cycling is a little more complex than one might immediately anticipate.

My officials are working closely with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on drawing up measures to encourage admissions authorities, parents and children to consider more environmentally friendly means of getting to school, where that is feasible. It is also important that parents have their preferences met where possible. We recognise that that must be balanced by a number of considerations, including ensuring that children do not have to travel unduly long distances to find a suitable school place. There are other disadvantages to that, as well as environmental ones.

Where schools are oversubscribed, many admission authorities give priority to children who live nearest the school--sometimes measured by the safest walking route. Others give priority to children resident within a defined catchment area and others take account of transport routes. Admission authorities will continue to be able to use those oversubscription criteria.

We must of course consider how we monitor the success of our policies within this Bill. But schools' admissions arrangements and the operation of the school transport policy are local matters. Environmental considerations are essential. But the Government are tackling them in a comprehensive and coherent manner, and not piecemeal. We do not see that a report for Parliament, which this amendment would require, adds to the Government's overarching environmental policies. Therefore I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, though in some ways I found it disappointing. She mentioned again the commitment of the Government to the green linkage between policies pursued by various departments. But it is difficult to find in this legislation any evidence of that approach. It seems to be entirely based on the organisation of schools and not take into account the environmental impact of those policies, which is what one would expect the Bill to do if it had been subjected, for example, to some kind of environmental audit.

It was for that reason that we sought the possibility of an annual report; that is, to show how one aspect of the Bill may affect environmental considerations. On the other hand, I am glad to hear that her department is getting together with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. School

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transport is an extremely important subject. It is extremely costly, however we provide it. There are those who believe that it would be better to do it all by free school buses and others who have totally different points of view.

I do not believe that we will get any further today and therefore, despite my disappointment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5 p.m.

Clause 98 [General restriction on selection by ability or aptitude]:

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford moved Amendment No. 176B:

Page 75, line 10, at end insert--
("( )any selection by ability consequent upon section (Admission arrangements: selection procedure);").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 176B, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 176C to 176E and 177A to 177D.

Clauses 98, 100 and 101 deal with selection, both generally and for the so-called specialist schools. The arguments of medieval scholastics as to how many angels could dance on the head of a pin were models of clarity compared to the tortured thinking that lies behind the clauses that we are now to consider.

We all know that the Government and the noble Lord opposite hate selection by ability. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, reminded us in trenchant tones the other night of his dislike of selection by ability. It was beautiful 1960s stuff and I like to hear it. But the problem is that Her Majesty's Government face the need to increase and improve standards in education. Therefore, in spite of the purity of their view in relation to selection, they see the need to have some sort of selection for their specialist schools, presumably designed, since they were introduced by the previous government, to improve standards. To a degree therefore they are impaled on the horns of their own dilemma; that is, a dislike of selection, yet having to introduce some selection and pretending that it is not selection at all. Our amendments are designed to help them away from that confusion of thought and to introduce rationality and reality into what is at present confusion and uncertainty.

Amendments Nos. 176B and 176C are direct and clear. We nail our flag clearly to the masthead. They would allow schools, subject to the approval of governors and a ballot of parents, to introduce selection by ability--straight and absolute.

Why do we do this? The Government have talked often of the right of parents to decide, and shortly we are to consider a whole raft of clauses relating to the votes on grammar schools. The Government's attitude to selection is that it is not wholly bad; otherwise they would presumably have abolished grammar schools by an Act of Parliament. But they have not done that. They have said that they will allow parents to decide either on a whole county ballot or on a ballot related in a different way to schools. In other words, they have acknowledged parental choice over the question of

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selection. However, it surprises me that they do it only one way. Surely logic and decency would require what my amendment suggests--the same right for other schools and parents apart from grammar schools.

I have to mention again that there is a myth unique to England--it is a myth--that selection destroys society and disadvantages the less able. As I said in an earlier debate on the Bill, that is disproved by the experience of Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and many other countries. If one says that selection is so evil that one cannot allow people to decide on it, one has also to say that we are in such a distinct society that what can occur a hundred or so miles across the Channel or the North Sea cannot occur in England. That is a myth, and socialist governments in Holland, Germany and Austria seem happy to live with selection. Strangely, if one compares the results, up to university level those countries actually do better than we do. So my noble friends and I put it straight on the face of the Bill. If you can have it one way, why not the other? I expect that I will get the old dogma thrown back at me. But remember Austria, Germany, Holland and Belgium. I put it the other way round so that one can see it one way or the other.

We then move on to Clause 100. It sets out in subsection (1) what is known in the trade as banding: each school should contain representative groups of all levels of ability. Here again one sees the problem that Ministers face as they try to adapt an ever-ageing ideology to a changing world and as they let their sociological ideals, belonging to those passe days of the 1960s, govern their educational thinking. Perhaps I may remind them--I hope not in too painful a way--that they have had to introduce these elaborate systems of banding because it has proved impossible for them--nor do they want to at the moment--to maintain the pure position of the area comprehensive.

I remind noble Lords opposite that the arrangement back in the 1960s, which was supposed to be the great argument for comprehensive education, was that banding would occur automatically because children of one area would go to one school and, as a result, one would get a variety of abilities. Why did that break down? It broke down because the parents did not like to be told to go to the school in their area; it broke down because the Government were not prepared to bus children from school to school; and it broke down because the area comprehensive was often too reflective of the sociology of the area and the children of certain disadvantaged areas also had disadvantaged schools. Therefore, the old pure gospel of comprehensive education--go to your area school and you will be with the people of your area--broke down. Furthermore, even noble Lords opposite do not like selection by house agent, which became a feature of the area comprehensive system.

So what do they do? They evolve this complex system of banding. What it means in reality is that in a school of 1,000 to 1,500 children one has to work out various ranges of ability. If one has a certain percentage at the top, one has to have a certain percentage at the bottom--all put on the surface of the Bill. I suggest to noble Lords that this will be a complex process. At least

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the area comprehensive was simple and understandable, although it was a dreadful system. First, IQ tests are a fallible instrument. Noble Lords who have dealt with them will know that some reflect different skills. For example, in schools of which I have been in charge, I have used IQ tests which put too much emphasis on mathematical ability. Someone else might put too much emphasis on literary ability. Therefore, precision in regard to who are the best pupils and who are the worst becomes difficult.

There will be arguments about this--considerable arguments--because on the basis of this system parents will be refused and schools will say to the parents, "Sorry, we have filled up our 10 per cent. higher ability range. Your child is too clever for us"; or, "Sorry, we have filled up our lower range. Your child is too dim for us". Then there will be arguments. I can assure the Committee that there will be arguments because parents have smelt parental choice, they have had it, and they want their children to go to what are often over-subscribed schools. Then the adjudicator and the admissions forum is brought in. It will be a nightmare. In fact, you might even side with the area comprehensive by the time you have finished.

So our Amendments Nos. 176D and 176E allow schools to decide their admission arrangements without being subject to ideology and remove the artificial rules requiring over-elaborate prescription. In other words, we open the thing out. The suggestion, and what I am putting on the record, is that the Government are still too attached to old dogmas and that they are not prepared to look across the Channel at selective systems which have produced better education for the less able. In the end they will suffer for it, as we have suffered for it over the past 30 or so years. Remember, the Bill has been put forward because of many failures in English education which have resulted from the failure of the comprehensive system to satisfy the less able. My government failed to tackle the comprehensive system because it had been too strongly entrenched. This Government will not do it because, on the whole, they are attached to it and prefer the elaborate and prescriptive method of banding.

Then we move on to the specialist schools. Although the noble Lord said late the other day that selection by ability is always hopeless, we are to have some selection. But the Government are carried screaming to the altar. The Government know as well as I do that if you say that a school specialises in languages and admits a certain percentage of its pupils on that basis, pure logic demands some test in that subject. Are they good at languages and science? Will they benefit from a specialist school in languages and science?

I say that the Government are dragged screaming to this position because they are trying to avoid reality. In this clause they never use the phrase "selection by ability". They talk of "aptitude". In the dictionary, "aptitude" is a synonym for "ability". But what do they mean if they say that "aptitude" is not "ability"? Are they saying it is just "interest"? Are they so terrified by the word "ability" that they almost approach it with garlic in their hand? If they mean that "aptitude" is "interest", will they judge that a child should go to a

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school specialising in languages because he smiled when he saw a French book or that he should go to a school specialising in science because he gave a little laugh when he saw a Bunsen burner? If they really mean that children should benefit, surely they need some kind of test to show that the child has some ability in French, or science, or mathematics, or whatever it be.

Our Amendments Nos. 177A to 177D face the reality. They remove the tortuous thinking of subsection (2). They allow a wider range of subjects. Prescribed subjects are mentioned on the face of the Bill. If people are going to do science it will not be enough just to do one science subject. One needs to look at an amalgam. Science subjects tend to go together with other subjects. If people wish to take science and there is a specialist school, then ability in mathematics is very important. One of the reasons why I was very bad at physics was because I could not do maths. If I were put in a specialist science school, it would have made a nonsense of the word "specialisation".

Our amendments also remove the 10 per cent. limit. How can a school be called a specialist science school--one assumes that the average entry to a school is sixth-form, with six classes of 30, making 180 pupils--if only 18 are chosen for their specialism in science? That is a tiny number. What do these specialist schools involve? It would be far better to follow the logic of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, the other night. He said that he did not like selection by ability, so why have specialist schools? They seem to me to fall between two stools. They will neither fulfil the dogma of comprehensivism nor be truly specialist.

Therefore, we are trying to deliver the Government from the horns of their dilemma. In the 1920s the late dictator, Stalin, faced the same problem. In the aftermath of the revolution in Russia an egalitarian philosophy prevailed over standards of education. The late dictator, Stalin, introduced school uniforms and selection by ability, which had been a feature of the Russian system. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, knows, the Russian schools do a lot better than the schools in his local area.

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