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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I shall be extremely brief as I feel that I do not have much choice. But since most of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, were debating points rather than specific questions and since this is not the occasion to have a debate, I do not intend to do so.

I am sorry that the noble Baroness did not receive a copy of the Statement. I am certainly willing to look into that. But I do not believe that it is for my private office to provide copies of the Statement. That is a matter for the House authorities.

The noble Baroness said that there has been a "war of attrition". Once again she used a great deal of purple prose, repeating what was said yesterday. It is not the aim of this Government to have a war of attrition in any way. I repeat what I said yesterday and what was said by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State this afternoon. We intend to continue with our policies, which are to have the highest possible standards in all, not just a few, of our secondary schools and to allow parents the right to ballot in the small remaining number of places where grammar schools are still in existence.

The noble Baroness asked me about Labour politicians who have sent their children to schools where interviews or examinations still take place. I really do not think that it is right or proper for me to comment on private or personal choices made by my colleagues. I am rather surprised that the noble Baroness wants to spend so long on that.

She also raised the issue of selection and its continuation under this Government. She used examples of music and ballet schools and provision for

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special educational needs children. I merely say that it would be patently absurd--and I say this as somebody who has spent a lifetime with a passionate interest in ballet--to admit children to highly specialised schools providing an extremely specialised form of training without selecting them for talent. Most Members of this House would not have been able to go to a ballet school and would not have been able to benefit from it. That is totally different from a situation in which children are not going to highly specialised schools which are training for a particular talent but are going to schools offering a broad and wide-ranging curriculum.

To suggest that this Government discriminate against able children and treat them as pariahs is absolute nonsense, and the noble Baroness knows it. We have done a great deal to support good provision for gifted and able children and we shall continue to do so.

I turn now to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I am very sorry that he did not have a great deal of time to make the points that he wanted to. I agree with him entirely that the issue with which the Conservative Opposition seem so obsessed is not a mainstream issue. It is not something about which parents out there are concerned because 95 per cent of parents send their children to non-selective comprehensive schools. Many of them are delighted with the results which the best of those schools are able to provide. This Government are also determined to make sure that those comprehensive schools which are not performing as well as they should be are helped and supported so that they perform very much better.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked me about ballots. It is not our intention to make any changes to the system. We believe that we have the balance right and we shall continue to operate it in the way that it has been set up.

He asked about the new academies which have been announced today. It is very early days. The Government intend to consult with all the parties which are to be involved in the establishment of those schools. After that consultation period is over, we shall issue a prospectus and I shall be very happy to make sure that the noble Lord receives one.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, if one puts labels on children, they live up to those labels? The consequence of selection is that we label children. By making them live up to those labels, we contribute either to the problem of exclusion or the establishment of sink schools.

Does it not also devalue the quality of primary education where the head teacher, either because of professional ambition or parental pressure, concentrates far too much on the techniques of examination?

Does my noble friend accept also that if we have failing schools, they will not be turned round within a 12-month period, even if the person parachuted in is of

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the highest calibre? Does she agree that a longer period is needed in order to tackle the problems which failure brings about?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I accept entirely that labelling children as failures at the age of 11 is an extremely unfortunate practice. Many children and, indeed, children going through adolescence and right into adulthood have suffered from that process. They have felt stigmatised by it and have felt unable to escape from that labelling process. They have had no opportunity, as late developers, to make up for the fact that they were late developers. So I entirely agree with my noble friend on that matter.

It is important that we do all we can to turn around failing schools as quickly as possible. I am extremely pleased that those schools on special measures have been turned around much more quickly since the Government came to power than was the case previously. That is a indication of the Government's commitment to provide adequate support, resourcing staff with great commitment to help such schools. The time it takes for a failing school to be brought back to health has been reduced from 25 months at the time of the election to 17 months now.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, I refer to the declaration of interests I made yesterday. Perhaps I may ask the Minister the following question. Something must have happened to have caused the Secretary of State in a number of performances last Sunday to execute the evolution, if not the volte-face that so annoyed the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, in our debate yesterday. What was it, and why did he do it?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am not sure to what the noble and learned Lord refers. I am not sure what particularly annoyed my noble friend Lord Hattersley yesterday. That really is a question to put to my noble friend Lord Hattersley.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, I declare that I attended a grammar school; I met my wife at a grammar school; I taught in a grammar school--an excellent school which was vastly superior to the private schools littered around the place; and that my children went to a grammar school. From all that, I learned one thing: that to decide the future of a child at 11 is wrong. Selection at 11 transforms children's futures. Passing the 11-plus made all the difference to my life. If that had not happened, I do not know what would have happened to my career. It made a great deal of difference.

The question that I want to ask--obeying the rules of these debates--concerns failing schools. A school in my constituency is named after me. It is not a constituency throughout which large numbers of people pass the 11-plus. Who is to decide what constitutes a failing school? Will it be decided by the number of O-levels--or whatever they are called these

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days--or A-levels passed? What is a "failing school"? A school may be doing well but not performing in a way that appeals to academics. Who is to decide?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I share my noble friend's view that failure at the age of 11 has blighted the lives of many young people, as I said in response to an earlier question. That is not to say that when there was a system of grammar schools, they did not provide many of us with a good education. I do not deny that, but it is a quite different point.

My noble friend asked what constitutes a "failing school". He will be aware that schools are regularly inspected and that it is through the inspection process carried out by Ofsted that schools are designated as "failing". On a whole variety of objective criteria, those schools are not doing the job that we expect of them. I am happy to send my noble friend more precise details of the criteria which Her Majesty's Chief Inspector considers when designating schools in that way.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, in the Statement, the Minister spoke about the academies which may replace failing schools. She said that such academies may specialise. If they specialise in certain subjects, will they not automatically become selective? Surely, if there is a specialised character to a school, that in itself will result in selection.

Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords. Such schools will not become automatically selective. There are already a substantial number of specialist schools. Those schools do not select by ability and it is not our intention that the new city academies should do so.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I am still reeling from the suggestion that the failure to raise standards over 18 years of government was the fault of Labour when the Conservatives were in control--

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I did not say that we failed to raise standards. I simply said that two thwarting factors were very material during those years.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, in relation to whether failure or success prevailed, will the Minister confirm that under the previous administration more than four in 10 pupils did not reach the expected levels in literacy and numeracy? What chance did those pupils have of succeeding in secondary education? Does she agree that standards would be undermined by the Conservative Opposition, who, they told us, would immediately remove the literacy hour and other measures which the Government have taken to raise standards in education?

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