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Lord Dearing: I do not argue from principles. As a long-standing civil servant, by definition I have no principles. I am a pragmatist. I do respect the principles expressed by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord. However, if I have a principle, it is that of responding to the individual child. If all our schools could respond to all our children according to their needs, I should walk warmly with the amendment. However, in a society where we cannot equip all our schools to offer excellent facilities and teaching to all children according to their aptitudesand I believe that we are not such a societyand are able to provide excellent facilities only on a limited scale, we should seek to accommodate a child who has a distinctive talent.
I refer to mathematics. I remember sitting at the feet of a professor at the university I attendeda less distinguished one than the LSE. He described exceptional ability in mathematics as "spooky". I knew that I did not have that spooky ability, but some people are especially talented.
If we are saying that we cannot afford to equip all of our schools with first-class engineering, IT or music departments, and if we are saying that we seek in Guildford, for example, to ensure that all schools there have specialist school status in some area or other and that they were complementary, and if we say that we should reserve only 10 per cent of places for children who seemed to have a particular talent, I cannot see that we are adopting a repulsive policy of selection by denying the 90 per cent the opportunity to share in the specialism. We should be saying only, "Because some children have special talents, let us nourish them by giving some placesa small minority of placesto them". I do not think that this denies to the many the opportunity to have exposure to those facilities. It involves saying, "For those children who happen to have a special gift, let us ride with it and help them".
The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: When one thinks about it, this is a very complex debate. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, does not have a great deal of time for faith schools in contemporary society. He consistently paid tribute to the work of the Churches in earlier times. The one thing that he has to admit is that the Churches have embraced the comprehensive principle within the umbrella of the faithboth Roman Catholic and Church of England.
I stand before the Committee as the product of a small grammar school. I remember the day when I was called out with six others to the front of my primary school to be acknowledged and affirmed about going to the grammar school. As a working-class boy, I doubt whether I should be here today if that had not happened. That is just how things were. The problem at that time was that secondary modern schools were not given adequate resources.
The problem today with comprehensive education is the ability of the rich to buy the comprehensive education that they want by moving house. I remember when I worked in South London that people would buy houses within the area of the Wandsworth Comprehensive School, which in those days had a terrific reputation. I taught at the Spencer Park Comprehensive School by Clapham Junction. It was a sink comprehensive. It is closed so I can make such statements without the public record having to reveal that. We worked very hard and tried to pull
That has been replaced by a system in which comprehensive schools in urban deprived areas take only a particular group of people from homes that are, on the whole, socially deprived. I support the Government's plans involving city academies and specialist schools because I believe that the drive behind that is to enable boys like me, and girls of the same age that I was then, to develop their aptitudes and skills in the way that Beckhamif that is the example that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, finds helpfulhas developed his.
The dilemma for those holding the view of the noble Lord, Lord PestonI believe that the Churches have tried to go with thatis how one deals with the business of "choice by wealth" within the maintained sector. I do not see how one can sort that out without social engineering, which none of us favours.
On balance, I therefore come down in favour of what the Government are trying to do; that is, to enable those who have aptitude and ability to be affirmed despite a background that may be to their disadvantage, however willing their parents may be that they should grow. I do not know how we square the circle in relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Peston, rightly wantsthe best for every childagainst what the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, suggested; that is, that comprehensive schools are not currently achieving that. That involves not so much grammar schoolsthere are so few of them leftbut wealth and where people are able to buy housing.
Baroness Andrews: We should do this complex debate a disservice if we did not put on record two points. First, comprehensive schools in this country display enormous talent in terms of teaching and learning. A huge cultural diversitymulticultural diversityis visible on the walls of those schools. I refer to the music of the schools, scientific displays, their academic and cultural achievements and the way in which they work with the community. There is enormous diversity and achievement. On both sides of the Committee, we take pride in what has been achieved during the past 30 yearsnot least by the party oppositein terms of abolishing the barriers to talent-flowering through changes to the system of comprehensive education. We should all celebrate that. The debate about specialism is in danger of diminishing what we all recognise are the achievements of our comprehensive schools.
I was concerned that we seemed to be saying that 50 per cent of schools should have those opportunities. I am reassured that every school has the aspiration. The more schools I talk to, the more convinced I am of that. The concept of working towards specialisation is exceptionally important as an aspiration and it will be an important achievement. That will be the antidote to distortion.
This is a serious debate, and it is keenly and personally felt. Diversity has brought great achievements and opportunities. I share some of the reservations that have been expressed by those on the Benches opposite. We have not compromised principles of comprehensive education in that regard.
I, too, am the product of a hugely selective grammar school system. Without that education, I, like 95 per cent of the children with whom I went to primary school, would have had a secondary modern education. Thirty years ago, that was hugely inferior and hugely disadvantageous. We have lost a tremendous amount of talent nationally as a result.
Lord Lucas: I should certainly not go all the way with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, or the noble Lord, Lord Peston, because I cannot see how one can run a music school or a dance school, for instance, without having some form of selection. The idea that I could have gone to a dance academy simply because I wanted to is ridiculous. I do not think that the noble Lord would have enjoyed the experience of watching me at a dance school, either.
There is a better way to approach this matter. I am in favour of parents choosing schools rather than of schools choosing parents. Two things need to be done to achieve that. First, we should free up the supply of schools and school places; we shall come to that in relation to a later amendment. It is crucial to stop the straitjacket that does not allow schools which are of the type that parents want to expand and come into existence but which forces parents to choose from the types of schools that exist.
Secondly, we need to change the school transport system from one that is run for the benefit of local authorities in order to make it extremely difficult for parents to choose schools, to one that is run for the benefit of parents, so that they have the maximum possible chance of getting their kid to the school that they want him to go to.
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