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Noble Lords: Noble friend!

Lord Baker of Dorking: My noble friend--noble and honourable, I hope.

Noble Lords: No.

Lord Baker of Dorking: I shall use as many adjectives as your Lordships require, but she is a very good egg!

My point is that my noble friend's amendment would remove that particular dispute from controversy, and that is what we should seek. The last thing that our country's education system needs is a fight on old barren ground. The clear wish of people who expressed a view is that the remaining grammar schools should stay. On certain days the Government agree with that; on other days, they do not--and that is an imperfect lead to give to the education system of our country. Therefore, I very much hope that the House will support the amendment.

I must not sit down before I touch on the Liberal Democrats in relation to this matter. The Liberal Democrats nationally are against selection. That is clearly set out in their manifesto. With regard to the local option--the noble Lord, Lord Tope, knows more about the local option than anyone because he presides over a local authority--it is the local level that maintains grammar schools, believes that they are marvellous, campaigns for them, funds them, pays them and encourages them to grow and develop. Therefore, I believe that we should discount entirely the integrity of the Liberal Democrat Party in this matter--not only in this matter, but particularly in this matter--because it is one on which they say, "Don't do as I do; do as I say".

I hope that your Lordships will consider these to be the battles of yesteryear and agree that we should not continue them.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, when the Minister introduced the amendment, she referred to the history of discussions about grammar schools over the past 25 years. As someone who had a part in that history, perhaps I may say that I notice and accept that on the face of it the Labour Party appears substantially to have changed its position. Perhaps I may remind her that in 1979 the purpose of the first Bill introduced by the incoming Conservative government was to restore to local education authorities the power to retain grammar schools. That short Bill, introduced on approximately the seventh day of the life of that government, was necessary because of the previous Bill that had been passed by the Labour government under the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, as their

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Secretary of State for Education. Their Bill required local education authorities to become comprehensive and to do away with grammar schools.

There is no doubt that at that stage parents were not asked for their views; the government dictated that grammar schools should disappear. Happily, having passed the 1979 Bill, we have retained 164 grammar schools in this country. I believe that they continue to be a valued part of our education system. They are popular with parents and with the people of the country as a whole.

In the past few days, we have heard a great deal about the Government's concern over the perception of their policies. The Minister told us today that one of the Government's policies is the drive for and pursuit of higher standards in education. It is hardly surprising if the public have a slightly different perception when the only two Acts to have been passed by the present Government in this regard abolished the assisted places scheme, which provided education opportunities for children in inner cities which otherwise they would not have had, and maintained their open opposition to grammar schools.

Although the Government say that it is for parents to decide, the Minister, like the Minister in the other place, made it clear that they are opposed to, and wish to see the end of, grammar schools. The only ballot that has taken place--in Ripon--showed clear support for grammar schools. The attempt to hold a ballot in Trafford did not even get off the ground because an insufficient number of people signed the petition to start a ballot; and the provisions in the 1998 Act only cause worry and fear to grammar schools and disruption when a ballot takes place.

I am sorry that the other place decided to reject the amendment that we passed in this House. However, I hope that the compromise moved by my noble friend today, proposing a moratorium of 10 years before any further ballot can take place, will be passed in an effort to show that the House supports those who want to see the continuation of grammar schools.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I speak as president of the Grammar Schools Association. I did not intend to speak in this debate but, as ever, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has provoked me to the Floor.

The noble Baroness will remember that she answered two Written Questions which I tabled relating to A and B grades at A-level gained by independent and grammar schools. She may remember that she answered that 25 per cent of the A and B grades were gained by independent schools and 13 per cent by grammar schools. Therefore, 42 per cent of the top two grades at A-level were gained by 10 per cent of children in independent and grammar schools.

Is that an indictment of the state education system? I do not know. However, in face of that, schools on the Continent have opted for flexibility. In Kent, which has grammar schools, other schools have specialised in technology and various other subjects. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, is wrong--he is an historical dinosaur--to say that the only alternative to grammar

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schools is secondary modern schools. He has only to look across the Channel or to Kent to see that a wide variety of schools can provide alternatives that satisfy children who are not necessarily academic. Believe me, I was good at writing essays but I have never earned as much money as a London plumber.

Therefore, I suggest to the Government that they should be more pragmatic, more tolerant and look more closely at the facts rather than attach themselves to a dogma which died with Harold Wilson.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, I declare an interest as a board member of an organisation called Support Kent Schools. During the passage of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Government's position, as represented by the Minister, was that they were not hostile to grammar schools but they wanted the public to have an opportunity to decide the character of schooling in their areas. That stance seemed to me to be replicated today by the noble Baroness. She said that the Government do not support selection but want merely to return the decision to the public.

I, for one, must confess to having felt a certain scepticism during the passage of the earlier Bill because I believed it more likely that Ministers in this Government were the doctrinal heirs of Mr Anthony Crosland, whose objectives during his time in office were frequently cited in our debates, suitably edited.

Now we have an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate the sincerity of the position to which they aspired and which they avowed. As has been pointed out on a number of occasions this afternoon, we now know that the necessary threshold has not been achieved anywhere. The threshold was achieved in Ripon but that result has already been remarked upon. Nowhere else--in Trafford or Kent--has even the threshold for a ballot been achieved.

Therefore, the pressure to dispose of selection simply does not exist. In adopting the methods put forward by the Government--that is, their own threshold machinery--the people have spoken; or, to express it more accurately, the eloquence of the public has been decisive. It cannot be mistaken. Therefore, surely now is the time for the Government to say, "Very well, we accept that that is the case and we must now strike a balance between again taking the horse to water and avoiding the undoubted instability and damage that comes from instability to schools--not only selective schools but other, non-selective schools which would be affected by any change, to say nothing of the interests of parents and children".

I should like the Minister to answer two questions. First, does she accept that a period of uncertainty on this issue inevitably causes damage of the kind that has been mentioned today and which I need not repeat? Secondly, will she give an undertaking that this Government will not bring forward amendments to the thresholds which were so integral a part of the previous Bill and which have failed, I suggest, to produce the result that the Government wanted? I, for one, would be extremely grateful if in her reply an answer is given to those two questions.

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I believe that my noble friend's amendment of a 10-year moratorium strikes the right balance. It is the minimum that can really be afforded schools, which have gone through that immensely disruptive process in the past year or so. It strikes the minimum balance of stability needed and the Government now have the opportunity to demonstrate that they respect the wishes of the people and are not truly motivated by hostility to selection.

Lord Elton: My Lords, my incredulity is equal to that of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I shall try to express it in equally parliamentary terms. It is a debating point, but it is a valid one. The noble Lord spent a long time telling us that he is against ballots and then advised his friends to vote against an amendment to have fewer of them. There is probably no point in drawing that to the attention of his colleagues because they will do what they are told, but it is to be hoped that the rest of your Lordships will draw your own conclusions about the Liberal Democrats' position.


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