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AS AN AMENDMENT TO COMMONS AMENDMENT NO. 136

Baroness Blatch rose to move:


    As an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their amendment, at the end to insert "and do propose the following amendment in lieu of the words so left out of the Bill"--.

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MORATORIUM FOR HOLDING FURTHER BALLOT FOR RETENTION OF SELECTIVE ADMISSION ARRANGEMENTS IN GRAMMAR SCHOOLS

(" . At the end of section 105(8) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 there shall be inserted "and that period shall be not less than 10 years".")

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 136A. In the course of presenting her arguments for and against the amendments on the Marshalled List, the noble Baroness accused this side of the House of pitting grammar schools against comprehensive schools. If anybody is guilty of that it is the noble Baroness and her noble friends opposite. The Government's policy does precisely that. One has only to visit Trafford, Barnet and parts of Kent to see just how vociferous and active is the Labour Party in that work.

The noble Baroness also made no mention of what we believe to be the Secretary of State's plans to modify the petitioning and balloting arrangements in order to make it easier to close grammar schools. We understand that that matter is under active discussion within the department. It is not for me today to go over the arguments about the merits of grammar schools; we have debated those at length in this House. I concede defeat on the amendments passed by this House which went to another place. However, one matter that is worth considering--it is the kind of consideration that this House usually deals with sensitively--is that there should be an end to the upheaval, war of attrition and discomfort caused to schools by this kind of activity on an annual basis. We believe that the five-year moratorium, which in practice is only four years, should be set aside and the period of respite for schools should be 10 years.

For those who wish to see the demise of grammar schools, they will not go away; they will remain active even between one period and another. We are not talking about one generation of children who pass through the school during those five years. A child starting grammar school can expect twice during his time there to have his schooling disrupted, his teachers and head teachers distracted, his parents disturbed and politicking going on around him. It is only fair to give at least one generation of children a respite from such upheaval occurring a second time.

My honourable friend Graham Brady, when considering our amendment in another place, said that one of the saddest aspects of the current Parliament is that a government claiming to be more interested in standards than in structures took early action focused directly on the structures of education. They did so in relatively limited areas of the country but where, by and large, the system has been working well. If the Government were truly more interested in improving standards than in tinkering with structures, they should have left the remaining grammar schools alone two years ago when the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 was passed. He went on to say that if it is their true agenda today, they should warmly embrace the House of Lords Clause 98, which was wisely added to the Bill by this House. He said that in the present climate the House of Lords seemed to take

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more care of the interests of the electorate and behaved more like a democratically responsive body of Parliament than the House of Commons. I shall return to that theme during debates on later amendments.

The Government's blind prejudice against academic ability has never been more manifest than in their philosophical objection to academic selection. What, may I ask the Minister, is so evil about selecting children on the basis of ability, particularly bright children from poor homes?

Moved, That Amendment No. 136A, as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 136, be agreed to.--(Baroness Blatch.)

Lord Tope: My Lords, I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, with incredulity. I do not doubt that she is genuine in her concern for the disruption and distress caused in schools which are undergoing ballots. I speak from personal experience of schools and can say that, coming from the representative of a government who introduced ballots on maintained status and had school after school experiencing considerable division and disruption all because of their ideological drive to force grant-maintained schools on a country which demonstrated in ballot after ballot--and more particularly by refusing to hold ballots--that it did not want such schools, the concern is hard for me to understand. I do not want to use unparliamentary language, but I find some of what has been said remarkable coming from a party which started the ballots.

We opposed the Government's proposal, which is now in the Act, to ballot on grammar schools. We thought that it was inappropriate and that it would be better left to local decision-making. We do not want to rehearse those arguments today, but if the Government are considering amending the ballot regulations to make them a little fairer and more workable, I suppose that we welcome it. However, I should welcome much more their reappraisal of the whole situation.

The Minister spoke eloquently, as always, against selection in education but perhaps I may correct her on one point. She referred to grammar schools versus comprehensive schools. That is wrong; it is grammar and secondary modern schools versus comprehensive schools. If you have grammar schools, by definition you must have secondary modern schools, whatever label or name you choose to give them. That is the proper comparison with comprehensive schools and when one makes it one can see that in the overwhelming majority of cases our comprehensive schools have been most successful.

We will not support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. However, I must again make clear our party's opposition to the Government's ballot proposals as enshrined in the School Standards and Framework Act.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, when it comes to grammar schools, the Government are in a mess. It is a tailor-made, self-imposed mess. Before the election,

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their only undertaking as regards education policy was to do something about the grammar schools. They were unspecific, but it was clear that many Labour Members believed that they would move to the abolition of grammar schools. Indeed, some Labour Members--notably the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, and others--have been totally consistent in their abhorrence of selection and their belief that comprehensive education is the only formula for the UK. The Government in whom he was a Cabinet Minister in the 1970s not only believed that but implemented it.

This Government do not quite believe that but it is difficult to know what they believe. They are in favour of selection sometimes and against it at other times. If they were totally opposed to selection, and if they believed that it was evil to select children on ability, they should have the courage of their convictions and introduce a Bill to abolish the remaining 164 grammar schools. But that is not what they have done.

Old Labour Members would have liked that because they did not believe in selection. Many of them continue in that belief. Therefore, the Government decided to create a series of fancy franchises around the country in order to pass the decision making down to selected members of the community. And they must be disappointed that the fancy franchises they have created have given them a raspberry! The only ballot has been in Ripon. In Trafford, Birmingham and Kent, parents or local activists tried to reach the target but were unable to do so. In Ripon, the only place where an election took place, there was a decisive result in favour of grammar schools.

No doubt the noble Baroness will have read the minute which came from the Prime Minister's hands in recent days. She will remember that he wrote that the Government are out of touch with the "gut instinct" of the British people. The gut instinct in Trafford, Birmingham and Kent is to keep the grammar schools, not to abolish them. The Government cannot even get 20 per cent of the electoral college, which is a fancy franchise, to say that they want to abolish the grammar schools. Therefore, in response to the minute the Minister should tell her leader that she recognises that that is the case and that where there has been an election, the gut instinct was clearly for the continuation of the grammar schools.

Perhaps I may also remind the Minister that after the result in Ripon the heads of the grammar and comprehensive schools there said, "Never again do we want to be put through that; not in five years and not in 10 years". I support the amendment tabled by my honourable friend, because 10 years is long enough to ensure that it will never happen but those heads did not want to go through it again because they did not want to waste their time.

I ask the Minister to reflect on the improvements which could have been made to existing comprehensive schools in Birmingham, Kent and Trafford if the energies of all the parents had been spent on improving the quality of those schools rather than fighting such an arid battle. Therefore, I believe

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that the Government should accept the fact that that ruse has not worked and should abandon it as quickly as possible. They should certainly agree to the amendment of my honourable friend.


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