Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Hattersley: My Lords, I am in the embarrassing position of making my third speech in this House, in the knowledge that it is practically identical to my second speech. When I last addressed noble Lords, I said that the system of parental ballots was, I feared, so prejudiced as to be ridiculous. I now amend that allegation to express my certainty that the system of parental ballots is so prejudiced as to be ridiculous and I hope, if noble Lords will allow, to substantiate that claim.

However, before I turn to that point, I should like to make one or two comments on the proposal of the noble Baroness and on the way in which she has made her case. First, if, as she and her party so often claim, she believes in parental choice, she should support the argument that I shall put forward this afternoon; namely, to provide for better and more representative ballots which genuinely enable the parents in an area to determine the kind of school system they want in their county or borough. That would be a genuine parental choice upon which we could all agree.

However, the noble Baroness who has moved this amendment never offers arguments in favour of selection which bear much relationship to the truth of the matter. She has said again this afternoon that she believes in selection because it provides increased opportunities for parental choice. However, everyone knows that selection is the antithesis of parental choice. Parents do not choose schools; schools choose pupils.

If the noble Baroness truly believes that selection provides parental choice, I urge her to visit Ripon and ask those parents whose children attend the local secondary modern school--known by another name, but none the less a secondary modern school--how much parental choice they think they have. Some 33 per cent of those parents have tried to exercise their parental choice by choosing to take their children outside the borough to Knaresborough Comprehensive School which, in terms of examination results, has performed better than the grammar school in Ripon. However, the notion that selection and parental choice go together is one of the great myths of this debate. I find it sad that that argument is brought forward every time this subject is debated, even though it is patently false as a matter of fact. It is not a question of ideology; it is a matter of fact.

Like the noble Baroness, I, too, wish to draw upon the morality of the Ripon ballot. However, unlike the noble Baroness, I should like to remind the House of exactly how the Ripon ballot was conducted. Parental ballots have an extraordinary quality that is not shared by any other kind of ballot in this country. A politician, in this case the Secretary of State, can decide what should be the eligible electorate. In this case, he decided that five primary schools within the borough of Ripon--covering almost one-third of the electorate--should be disenfranchised, whereas two private schools outside the borough of Ripon (the

14 Mar 2000 : Column 1469

largest one is in Harrogate and it has not sent a child to a Ripon school for almost two years) should be enfranchised. It is a simple nonsense to conduct a parental ballot in a borough and to disqualify almost half the parents who have an interest in how the future of those schools should be determined.

My noble friend the Minister of State and I have discussed these matters constantly over the past 35 years. I know that she was a child when she began and that I was, even then, as the Secretary of State said on the radio the other day, ageing but much loved. That is a terrible accusation to make. Ageing I accept. As Gerard Manley Hopkins said, it is a fate we are heirs to. But "much loved" is a terrible thing to say of a politician with my reputation. However, that is an aside.

My noble friend the Minister of State and I have discussed these matters over the years. She, I know, shares my view that the form of education in any one area is a matter of concern to all the parents and all the pupils in that area. The idea that whether or not there are comprehensive schools in Ripon should only be a matter on which parents who have an association with a grammar school can vote is preposterous. A very large number of parents who wanted to send their children to comprehensive schools were prevented from doing so, prevented from voting for a comprehensive system they wanted.

I regard this as a tragedy in terms of the democratic reputation of the Government whom the Minister serves and whom I support. If I may be allowed to make a political point, I say to the Minister that if the Government whom I support continue to develop the reputation for rigging ballots they may pay a terrible price when an election comes along which they cannot fix before polling day. The Government need to demonstrate their integrity on this matter. Their integrity is not underlined or emphasised when the Secretary of State says that he is glad that the issue is now closed in Ripon and that he does not want to see an end to grammar schools. At least, that is what he said on Sunday. He may have been joking at the time. Of that we will not be sure for another five years. On Sunday he expressed his delight that he had drawn a line under these matters. I think that undermines the entire credibility of the Government in their pursuit of a coherent education policy.

Therefore, I say to the Minister of State that what she ought to do today--if I may speak to her in such didactic language--is to accept that under the clauses of the framework Bill it is possible for the Government to move an amendment to the order which says that when there is a parental ballot--as parental ballots there will be--that ballot will be available to all parents within the area where change must come about. The simple logic of that is overwhelming.

It is a simple logic which undermines another point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, who moved the amendment. The noble Baroness says that she endorses the belief of the Secretary of State that we ought to consider standards rather than structures. Everyone, apart from the Secretary of State and

14 Mar 2000 : Column 1470

apparently the noble Baroness, knows that standards and structures cannot be distinguished. When I made a speech in the House a year ago the Minister of State was good enough to agree with the proposition that when we talk about how schools should be organised we are talking about organising in a way that produces the best overall results. Some Members of this House, and many of us in the country, know that the best way to produce the best overall results is through a non-selective system of secondary education.

Having asked for that amendment--with no lively anticipation that my request will be granted--I want to say to the Secretary of State, through the Minister of State, that he could not have been at times over the weekend more explicit in saying that what the Government really wanted was for the whole argument on comprehensive education to go away. But I have to tell the Secretary of State--and on this at least the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch and I are agreed--that it is not going to go away. The campaigns will continue; not so much in Ripon, though an appeal against the way in which the ballot was conducted may come from that city. The campaign will go on in Trafford; it will go on in Sutton; it will go on in Birmingham; it will go on in Kent. The campaign will go on in those places because in each of those areas there are people who believe that comprehensive education is best for the children of the area. These are people whose attitude to education is based on judgment and principle.

I take the example of Kent where--I think literally and certainly virtually--every primary school head wants to see an end to the 11-plus. They say collectively that they are unable to conduct proper classes in junior and infant schools because the pressure is, "Don't teach the children, prepare them for the 11-plus". People who regard that as a negation of education will go on campaigning. The Secretary of State said that in Kent five schools are failing and he may take emergency action in the summer. A sixth one may be added to the list. There are more failing schools in Kent than in any other county in the country. Oh yes, it is true. Before the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, shakes her head, I urge her to look up questions in the House of Commons over the past fortnight. There are five failing schools in Kent, more than in any other county in the country. The failing secondary modern schools of Kent are the price that most of the pupils pay for the selective education that provides the minority of grammar schools. While that goes on some people are going to continue to campaign. And quite right, too. It is a matter of principle and not one of political preferment and political expediency.

Before I weary the House, I wish to mention one of my deepest political convictions. One of the tragedies of the ballot--and there are some tragedies--is that damage is done by implication to the reputation of the majority of overwhelmingly successful comprehensive schools in this country. That damage has been compounded by many of the conflicting statements made by the Secretary of State over the weekend. In

14 Mar 2000 : Column 1471

most parts of the country the "comprehensive" argument is over. Comprehensive schools are doing well. They are succeeding. They are taken for granted.

In the village where I live in Derbyshire the man who does my garden came to me on the first day and said, "Remember, everyone in this village votes Conservative and that includes me." In that village the idea that there should be an argument about whether the children of prosperous families should do anything other than go to comprehensive school would be regarded as ridiculous because the comprehensive school in north Derbyshire meets all the needs of the children who have a variety of abilities, aptitudes and aspirations.

I hope that the Minister of State will say--and speak for the Government when she says it--that comprehensive schools in this country have been an overwhelming success. They have fuelled the explosion in further and higher education. The new undergraduates going to our new universities are not the product of the 164 remaining grammar schools. They are the product of the non-selective system that is working. Desperate damage has been done to that principle by the unnecessary argument that the issue surrounding the ballots has created.

I say in conclusion that I would have liked my party to have taken its courage in its hands and to have said, "We believe that comprehensive education is best and therefore it is obviously the system that we will produce throughout the country." There was a time when the Conservative Party did the mirror image of that, when the Conservative Party-- with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I believe, exercising some authority in these matters--toured the country promising a grammar school in every borough. I think that is no longer the policy of the Conservative Party; it knows that in most boroughs and counties what the people want is non-selective secondary education. I regret very much that my party has not advocated that with the boldness that the subject justifies. So the ballots must go on. I wish that they could go on in a more equitable, just and rational way.

Some people have been exposing the inadequacies of the ballots as they are now presented. But they will go on and the argument for comprehensive education will go on because many of us think that it is right and necessary. I look forward to hearing my noble friend emphasise today that the Government accept that the comprehensive revolution in this country has been a great educational success. None of this somewhat peripheral argument surrounding it should be allowed to detract or deter us from that undoubted truth.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page