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I speak as one who was able to go to grammar school only because scholarships and free places existed. I am quite sure that my parents could not have afforded to pay for me to go to grammar school or, incidentally, to go to university, which I did through a government grant. Grants have now also disappeared. Girls like myself of the younger generation may be denied a lot of opportunities which my generation enjoyed--together with many Members of your Lordships' House and other people who have become prominent in British society--which is the privilege of a grammar school education.
My worry about the description of the order which the Minister so carefully gave us--and I appreciate that very much--was the wording of the ballot on which parents will be asked to vote. It would appear from what he said that parents will be asked a question which expects the answer "Yes", the num form of the question, as we used to be told in my Latin classes. If you are asked a very generous question such as, "Would it be nice to have the school"--which is a very good school and well known throughout the area--"open to children of all abilities?", of course you want to say, "Yes, how absolutely right that would be". If the question were put differently, for instance, "Do you want a change in the way in which this very good school currently selects its students?"--or any other form of words--I wonder if parents would automatically reply "Yes" to the question.
I did not intend to speak in the debate because I have an enormous admiration for the many good comprehensive schools which have done a very good job. In the 1960s and 1970s I was a passionate believer in comprehensive education. But it has not worked. An enormously high percentage of children from deprived areas who go to comprehensive schools fail to achieve their full potential. In universities we still find it extremely difficult to shift the social balance of those entering university from what it was in the 1930s. Therefore, I do not believe that we should attack and throw out, or give an opportunity to throw out, the remaining few highly successful grammar schools--there are only a few left--without much more consideration being given to the issue than so far has been the case.
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I did not intend to speak either, but the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, raised one or two points to which I should like to respond. I have been involved in a number of primary school campaigns for my own children and I have to say to my noble friend Lord Hattersley that 20 per cent. is a very modest threshold to obtain. Certainly, in the campaigns in which I have been involved, mainly to do with school closures, we have had a huge level of interest from local parents.
In making my second point, I wish to reiterate what was said by my noble friend Lord Monkswell. We should welcome the principle of the ballot itself and the principle that those eligible to vote will be a far wider group than those sending their children to the school at that moment in time. It is appropriate that the ballot is being cast far more widely.
My third point relates to the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about the wording of the ballot. The noble Baroness may have a point. But, whatever the wording of the ballot, parents understand the issue extremely well. It is somewhat patronising to think that the way a question is worded one way or another will get the response which the Government are trying to achieve. All the parents I know understand the issue of grammar schools extremely clearly. They know what they think and they will express it that way in a ballot, whatever the wording of the question.
Lord Tope: My Lords, as the Minister made particular reference to the London Borough of Sutton and, indeed, as the London Borough of Sutton is singled out for particular reference in several places in the regulations, I suppose I should start by declaring an interest in that I am the leader of the council in the London Borough of Sutton, although I do not speak in that capacity in your Lordships' House. However, I may be tempted to do so before I sit down.
I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, as I always do when he chooses to take part in our education debates. I suspect that I enjoy his speeches very much more than his own Front Bench does. I thought he made an extremely good and extremely eloquent case. I agreed with everything he said but for one thing. I thought his comments about London were superfluous. It is always a pleasure to be in London, whether on Friday or any other day. What is not a pleasure is trying to leave London on a Friday afternoon. But perhaps people should learn that they should not try.
I wish to return to what the Minister said in his opening remarks. He said that he did not want to get into a debate on the pros and cons of selective education. I am inclined to agree with him on that. Those of us who fought for many long hours through the Bill under which the regulations are brought forward argued those points fully, exhaustively and exhaustingly. We know where we all stand on that issue--at least we think we know where we all stand on that issue--but let me state that the Liberal Democrats remain clear and unequivocal in our opposition to selective education. I am less certain whether that is true of the Government Front Bench any more, but it is certainly true in our case. We accept that decisions about admission arrangements for schools should be taken in those local areas by local people in accordance with local circumstances. Therefore, I do not want to debate the pros and cons of selective education.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, said, the supporters of selective education believe that the proposals in the Act and in the regulations mean the destruction of grammar schools and the end of grammar schools. Those of us who do not support selective education believe, for all the reasons the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, expressed so eloquently, that almost the opposite is the case and that it will be extremely difficult to overcome the hurdles that are placed in our way. The Government may think, therefore, that, placed in the middle as they are, they probably have got it about right. All I would ask them to do is to consider who is holding which view and what views are held by their friends, or perhaps their former friends, before they decide to take too much comfort from sitting in the middle on this issue.
I want to raise some specific concerns arising from the regulations. As has been said, 72 of the 166 grammar schools could be the subject of feeder school ballots. I would welcome some comment from the Minister on some points about feeder schools. First, with regard to parents with children at key stage one, if those children are in a primary school those parents will be eligible to take part in a ballot. If those parents have children in an infants school, which will now be required to have its own governing body, they will not be eligible to take part in a ballot? I cannot see the logic of that. The interest of a parent of a child at key stage one in the future secondary system in their area is as great regardless of the nature of the school or the class their child is in. Why do the Government intend to exclude parents of pupils in infants schools when, had they been able to or had they chosen to send their child instead to a primary school, they could have taken part in the ballot? I cannot understand the logic of that position and I hope the Minister will be able to explain it to me.
Secondly, I wish to refer to the minimum limit of five pupils transferring. I am glad that the Minister made it clear that that is five pupils spread over three years. There has been some misunderstanding about this point and what he said is preferable to, as he put it, 15 pupils spread over three years. Nevertheless, there are a number of very small rural schools where they may well not achieve five pupils transferring over three years. There are schools with 30 or fewer pupils--never mind classes with 30 or fewer pupils. The parents of pupils at such a school do not, by definition, have any less interest in the future of secondary education in their area than if their children were able to go to a larger school where there would more likely be a greater number of pupils transferring. I still worry that there will be some small rural schools where parents who have a full and legitimate interest are excluded simply because they do not meet the threshold.
The noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, made the point, which was also made by the Church of England, that some grammar schools--indeed, some grammar schools in the London Borough of Sutton--draw their pupils from a very wide area indeed and, because of that, some
There is another category of parents who may be excluded. I refer to the parents of pupils transferring to a grammar school after the normal age of transfer--in many cases transferring from a secondary school into a grammar school. There may well be cases where that happens in a greater number of cases than five over a three-year period. I did not have time to check with my own authority but I suspect that it could well be the case. Not many manage to transfer into a grammar school, but some do, and there may well be more than five in one year. Yet although the parents of those pupils have a particular interest, they will be excluded from taking part in the ballot. That is unfair and unreasonable. Their interest is just as great as it would have been if the transfer had taken place at the normal time, or had their children been younger.
I now turn to the particular concern that I have in relation to the regulations; namely, the ballot information code. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the code applies to everyone who will take part in the discussion and not merely the LEA or the school governing body, which are covered on the face of the Bill. Assuming that that is the case, there are matters in the regulations that cause great concern. On the face of it, all of us support fair, reasonable, unbiased campaigns--they will be campaigns--on this issue. All of us wish to see parents supplied with factual information. However, I worry that the ballot information code will make it very difficult those on for both sides of the argument. It is not a pro-comprehensive argument; it is an argument for all sides.
For instance, there is a statement in the regulations that meetings arranged for parents on the future of a grammar school need to be open. I hope that the guidance will make it clear that if a number of parents wish to organise a petition in support of a grammar school, or for that matter in favour of non-selective education, they will not necessarily need to invite to the meetings parents who take a different view. However, the regulations could be construed in that way.
I speak with 30 years' experience of campaigns for or against grammar schools. It has been an issue in the London Borough of Sutton throughout my political life. I can tell the Minister that merely a statement that a grammar school is likely to be changed is likely to cause alarm, concern and offence to a large number of people. I therefore wonder how the debates and discussions will be conducted if they are under the constraint that nothing can be said which is likely to cause alarm, concern and offence as suggested in paragraph 2.d of Schedule 4.
In conclusion, perhaps I may change to my role in this House as leader of the council in the London Borough of Sutton and make particular reference to Nonsuch. I see that the Minister is smiling, so it is my guess that this does not come entirely unexpectedly to him.
The reason why my borough is singled out for particular mention is that we have one grammar school which is literally a few yards outside the London borough and inside the county of Sutton. I have lived in the borough for all but two years of my life. I know it well. That school has always been, and is still, regarded very much as a Sutton school, albeit that it is now grant-maintained and most of its pupils come from outside the borough, as they do for all our grant-maintained grammar schools.
The Nonsuch ward is included in the regulation because of the geographical accident that I have mentioned. But it is a grant-maintained grammar school; it is not by any definition a neighbourhood school. There is no logical reason why that ward in the borough of Epsom and Ewell should be singled out to be part of a relevant area any more than any number of other wards in the borough, or in other London boroughs or elsewhere. The parents of pupils who happen to live in that ward will of course have a right to take part in the ballot. So they should have. But to include everyone who is eligible in the Nonsuch ward is a nonsense. I suggest that the provision is included merely because some civil servants without local knowledge have looked at a map and said that since that is the ward the school is in by a few yards, it must therefore be included in the relevant area. I hope the Minister will accept from someone who has local knowledge--not because I hold any particular view one way or the other; I have no idea how the residents of the Nonsuch ward may vote on this issue if they are given the chance--that it is a nonsense to include just one ward from the neighbouring borough because the school happens to be located there. I repeat: it is not a neighbourhood school, and that makes no sense.
The noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, said that, were it appropriate to be dividing on these regulations, he would do so. Had he been able to do so, I should have joined him in the Division Lobby.
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