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Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I can assure the House that I shall not keep anyone from their social engagements. I shall be brief. I wish to speak to these regulations because I have been approached by many people, through the various posts I hold, to express the deep distress that they feel about the way in which this issue has been carried through.
I need not dwell on what my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, have said about the consultation period. It wasI use the word advisedlya disgrace. I am a governor of a Roman Catholic school, surprisingly. The Roman Catholic hierarchy had not a chance to consult each other because such a short time was allowed for consultation immediately before Christmas. I cannot speak for my own Church, but the same case applied. I am president of the National Grammar Schools Association which represents almost all the grammar schools. Not a word was sent to us. I am also a member of the National Association of Head Teachers. I seem to be unfortunate in the Government's spotlight as regards this matter.
I speak for four Roman Catholic schools of some excellence. The regulations will hit denominational schools hard as interviews are forbidden. As the Minister knows, denominational schools take their pupils from a very wide area. People from Downing Street go to Fulham, for example. The scope is even wider in the country. Priests in very large Catholic churches cannot know in detail the family situation. There may be six masses in the morning in an urban area with hundreds of people attending. How can a little cyclostyled letter, which is often what it is, give the headmaster the knowledge that he needs? The headmaster of a Catholic school, but not in London, I hasten to say, asked me this. The Government have
The Government profess that they are not hostile towards grammar schools. They say that it is up to the communities. If they want to vote against them, that is all right, but the Government want to be counted out. These regulations do enormous harm to grammar schools because there is selective entry and the regulations make it impossible for parents to have second choice of the most decent school in the area. In essence, if a pupil fails to gain entry to a grammar school it goes to the school with the least pupils. That is not parental choice. It is an awful dilemma for parents. I cannot understand how a decent, democratic government can do this sort of thing when they are not prepared to abolish the schools themselves.
I wonder how these much-vaunted specialist schools can exist without interview or approach. For example, I may wish to go to a language school, but it would not know whether I know French from Dutch or whether I am interested in languages. What if I want to be a plumber and I find myself at a language school? How are the Government going to organise that?
These proposals are a disgrace. I rarely become passionate about these things. I have been approached by so many people. There is a lack of consultation; lack of care for parental choice; bureaucracy and control from the centre. The only people who will benefit are of the independent sector because those who have money and who cannot get their child into the school of their choice will choose other schools. The Labour Party's policies kept me in a job and gave me a pension for 40 years and the same will apply to my successors.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I declare an interest as editor of the Good Schools Guide. I am enormously disappointed by these regulations. They do nothing for parents, as my noble friend Lady Blatch and the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, have said. They make life more difficult for parents. They reduce choice in a practical sense and they inhibit the free exercise by parents of their choice which, in the end, is what drives schools' policy. It is difficult for parents and ultimately it will be damaging for schools in taking this route.
The regulations are a monument to bureaucracy. It is astonishing to have regulations which go into the detail of prescribing the order of examinations in which GCSE results are to be published. Does one have to go after every jot and tittle in regulations such as these and leave nothing for the schools as to how they choose to express themselves. They have to study the regulations to make sure that they have not put an English exam where it should not be, say, after biology rather than at the beginning. Why do these things need to be specified? The situation is the same throughout the regulations. There is far too much unnecessary detail.
My own particular hobby-horse is the Internet. The year 2005 is supposed to be the time when we have electronic government. The composite prospectuses are to be published by local education authorities. They cannot pretend that they do not have the money and that they are not on the Net. The prospectuses do not have to be published on the Net or made available in an electronic form, yet nothing is being done to make it easier for parents to gather information on schools and compare them. It is astonishing how backward-looking the Government are and how full of froth and air on electronic government when the chance occurs to put something into practice. There is not even a requirement to publish e-mail and web addresses for schools. I find that astonishing and extremely disappointing.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for drawing attention to the absence of my colleagues. They have been invited to No. 10 in order to tell the Prime Minister many things. I never intended to go. The first time I went there was in the company of Pierre Trudeau, John Conteh and Robert Morley. I am sure that my colleagues who have gone to No. 10 tonight will have an equally good evening.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to reply. I am surprised that he asked that question coming, as he does, from the same city and when he knows the disaster which will occur to parents choosing a school. He and I had the advantage of a system where he went to a grammar school as I did. Why does the noble Lord believe that we should not worry about this matter?
Everyone has spoken with a detailed knowledge of the regulations. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has asked many questions. I have every confidence that my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham will be able to respond to them. I was somewhat puzzled because the first part of her statement deal with the discourtesy contained in the consultation procedure. I shall remind the noble Baroness of many issues raised when she was the Minister on this side of the Chamber. Whenever issues of this kind were raised there were constant complaints about the quality of the consultation which had taken place. I can remember my noble friend Lady Blackstone, my noble friends Lord Peston, Lord Morris and others raising these kind of issues, but not in detail. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was out of order when she talked about the incompetence of the department in this procedure. That may well have been the case, but I do not think that it is on for any Member of this House to castigate the civil servants who are here to look after our interests.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for giving way. I cannot remember a single occasion since I have been a Member of this House when only 25 days were given for a consultation process. Nor can I remember such arbitrary handing out of the documents to be considered, which will impact on every parent and child in the land.
Secondly, I was not looking for a debate on which to hang my speech. I have spent a lot of time this weekend that I would rather have spent with my daughter working on these documents. It has taken a lot of hard work, and I positively resent what the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, has said. We care about this issue passionately. If the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, goes back to the statute book, he will find that I had this kind of debate when the Bill was going through Parliament.
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