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Lord Baker of Dorking: Before the Minister sits down, can he answer the specific question that I put earlier? Does he personally want to see the end of grammar schools? He must have a personal view on this matter.
Baroness Blatch: The Minister's answer is interesting. I am reminded of the question put by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew to the noble Lord opposite and to another Minister earlier. When Mr. Blunkett referred to the statement of Anthony Crosland his answer was that he should not be expected to do in three months what Mr. Crosland had started. Implicit in that response is that he will stay with the principle behind the statement of Anthony Crosland but that it will take a little longer.
I should like to deal with some of the matters touched upon by the noble Lord. I am always encouraged when the noble Lord becomes really cross. It means that we have touched a nerve. On this subject we have certainly touched a nerve. We believe that what any government should do is build upon what is best and what works and develop and not destroy. Personally, it hurts to see a number of members of this Government, who not only enjoyed the fruits of the grammar school system and selective education but are presently enjoying those fruits by sending their children to those schools, closing
The noble Lord rather generously referred to the city technology colleges. That was a brilliant policy initiated and implemented by my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking. The noble Lord was gracious about it. However, the noble Lord and his colleagues did not support city technology colleges; they fought our proposals tooth and nail, as they did many of our other policies that have since been adopted.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, when responding to my noble friend Lord Baker, who had referred to the ballots on grant-maintained schools, retorted that not all of the people had been involved in those ballots. Today we have heard an absurd description of the balloting system for grammar schools. In some cases not all of the people will be involved in those ballots. I do not know how to describe it. It is incomprehensible and incredible that in one set of schools the parents of children aged 0 to five and parents of children aged 12 to 16 are disfranchised whereas in another set of schools parents of children aged 0 to 16 are enfranchised. What kind of system is that? There is no logic to it at all.
If the noble Lord believes that it is democratic and open of the Government to invite people to vote on whether they want selection to end in their authorities, what is wrong with giving people a vote on whether they would like selection to take place in their authorities?
On the collection of signatures--the point relates materially to some of my amendments--having been canvassed many times for my signature, my experience is that petitions can be undertaken in a highly civilised way and politely, with the purpose of the proposition explained painstakingly and a genuine effort made to persuade me to sign. Collections of signatures can also be deceptive. Perhaps I may give as an example an incident that happened to me involving some Labour activists in my area. They used to put up a couple of trestle tables in the market square each Saturday. They would collect signatures for many causes. On this occasion the cause was animal rights, and related to an animal experimental station in the area. I walked to the table for this reason. I had a son who, sadly, died when he was just short of 15. He was diabetic. His life had been saved by some of the experimentation on animals.
I asked the people whether they had read the motion on top of the petition paper; they had not. I invited them to do so. I also tried to tell those people that there needs to be a wider understanding of some of the arguments. They almost jumped over the table at me. One of them chased me up the high street and was abusive, because I had dared to try to introduce some integrity into the process of collecting signatures.
I make no apology for telling that story because I believe that the collecting of signatures can be a distasteful experience for some people. Many petition collectors can be aggressive and coercive. They can be economical with the explanations as to why people should sign a petition.
I wish to ask another practical question of whoever will respond to the debate. The verification procedures will be notoriously difficult. They always are. I have been involved in collecting signatures. Let us consider Kent, and the example that the noble Lord gave. Let us assume that the noble Lord's figures are correct. We are talking of 125,000 signatures. An authority has to decide whether the signature can be read, where the parents live, or whether they are bona fide parents of a child in a school in the area. There is a great deal of verification.
The schools do not have the resources to crawl over not one petition but many petitions. From the background papers on the debate, we know that one can have 50, 100 or 200 people collecting signatures. In the county of Kent it will not be difficult or take very long to collect 125 signatures if one can convince people. If one has several weeks and months in which to do so, one has only to have a few Saturday afternoons collecting signatures to reach that figure. Who will be in charge of the verification process? If the petition and ballot are successful, what financial help will be given to all the grammar schools which will cease to exist?
The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, challenged one of my noble friends--I cannot remember whom--about the plethora of legislation over the past 18 years. Let me remind noble Lords of some of it. As regards setting up the inspectorate to inspect schools, noble Lords opposite are entirely happy with that. They were not so at the time, but they are now. The national curriculum was opposed vigorously at the time; it is now accepted that there has to be a national curriculum. Assessment and testing were opposed vigorously at the time; they are now accepted as a way of life. We have had mentioned city technology colleges. They were opposed tooth and nail but are now supported. On specialist schools, not only do noble Lords opposite support the principle, they are extending it.
On grant-maintained schools, noble Lords opposite "sort of" support the concept--it is another devious policy--but they are changing the names and the degree of autonomy. Local financial management was invented by my local authority when I was leader of that authority. Now noble Lords opposite are praising that policy to the hilt. I refer to the Teacher Training
Lord Dormand of Easington: The noble Baroness's last statement is not true. While some of the legislation has been accepted, much has not. The point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, was on stability. It could be argued that grant-maintained schools and CTCs could be implemented, but with longer intervals. Anyone who visits schools or talks to teachers will find that they are sick to death of the chopping and changing over such a period. There has to be a timescale in which stability can be achieved. That was my point.
Baroness Blatch: I wish to make a distinction between the stability about which the noble Lord speaks and the stability to which we refer in this debate. The noble Lord should join me in visiting schools now. They are deeply unhappy about some of the changes now in train as a result of the Labour Government coming into office. There is a great deal of unsettled feeling in the schools. One has only to consider this Bill to see how much change is coming for local authorities and schools.
If the noble Lord can point me to any piece of legislation in the past 18 years which provided for a whole category of schools to cease to exist, with the parental preferences of all the parents who support the schools dashed to the ground in one fell swoop, I shall concede the point he makes.
Some schools will lose out in three ways. Some of the 160 schools will be grammar schools. That will be the subject of this measure. Some will also be grant-maintained schools, and they lose some autonomy. Some schools will have a distinctive religious character which, because of the unsatisfactory nature of the earlier answers, will be subject to the unelected organisation committees and all-powerful adjudicators. It is those people who will be asked for their signatures on a piece of paper in the market squares up and down the land.
Many of our children are suited to fast stream academic education. The policy of sending out people to collect signatures to destroy schools represents yet another rung out of the ladder for bright young people from low income families. Those people will not be able to choose to go to private schools. It is another way of pushing at least a percentage of these schools into the private sector. There is no doubt that instability will be created by the collection of signatures and the system of petitioning. This relentless war of attrition set up by noble Lords opposite will have a most damaging effect.
Finally, with the politics of envy, a cowardly method has been chosen as the mechanism for achieving this policy. Noble Lords opposite, headed by Mr. Blair, are presiding over a dumbing down of the whole country, of which that policy of petitioning and balloting against a category of schools which is producing some of the best education in our country is one further example.
We will not call a vote on the matter today. We will definitely return to it. I promise the noble Lord that I will return to it. I hope that before I sit down the noble Lord can answer the specific questions I put to him.
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