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I start by making our position clear. It was made before the election. We do not support selection by ability at age 11; and we do not wish to see it extended. But we believe that it is right for the future of existing grammar schools to be decided by local parents. That was our position from day one. It was a commitment in the manifesto. It appeared in the White Paper, Excellence in Schools. It was carried forward to the School Standards and Framework Act. That Bill, and specifically the clauses relating to the ballots, were the subject of many hours' debate by both this House and another place before it became an Act. It probably is not
My noble friend Lord Hattersley expressed some doubts about the action being taken by the Government. As a former secretary of his constituency party, it is always a delight to hear my noble friend talk on educational matters. However, I think that he is wrong in this case. I believe that the Government have drawn a correct balance in the regulations that they have laid down and adapting those regulations to circumstances ranging from a local authority area where there is a complete selective educational system to areas where either individual schools or a small number of schools adopt a selective policy.
My noble friend also raised the issue of the 20 per cent. threshold. Sections 1 and 6 of the Act clearly state that the threshold must be at least 20 per cent., so regulations cannot introduce a lower figure. The Government believe that the 20 per cent. threshold is the best figure. It is sufficient to demonstrate clear support for the ballot while at the same time still being a realistic figure for those wishing to raise a petition.
My noble friend Lord Hattersley referred to the different types of ballots: an area ballot, and that for feeder schools. There are good reasons for those differences. Our original intention was to define electorates by feeder schools. That was because grammar schools draw from schools from a wide geographical area on the basis of the selective arrangements rather than the location of the pupils' homes. Choosing feeder schools as the basis for the electorate is the right approach because they have a tradition of sending pupils to the grammar schools. The parents at those schools would have some likelihood of their children being considered, or indeed rejected, as possible pupils for the grammar schools. However, we realised fairly soon that there was a fundamental difference between areas where the whole area is a part of a selective system and those where grammar schools exist within an otherwise comprehensive system. We therefore brought in the concept of area ballots to recognise the fact that in areas where a selective system operates, change in the admission arrangements of all grammar schools will affect the whole school system in that area.
My noble friend Lord Hattersley complained about the complexity of the regulations and said that they lacked natural justice. Following the regulations clear guidance will be produced which will enable the people involved to be clear about the rules and process under which those ballots and petitions operate.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, expressed concern that the current definition of a feeder school would be unfair to small schools, perhaps in particular those in rural areas. The definition of a feeder school was one of the subjects on which we received most comments during the recent consultation exercise. Those responses were not consistent. Some argued for the threshold to be lowered; others for it to be raised, suggesting that the current definition made the electorate unmanageable and
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, asked about the contract to run the provision for organising the petitions and ballots. I can assure the noble Lord that there is provision for the breaking of a contract if it is not going as it should.
The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, asked about the ballot question. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, suggested, to put it as its mildest, that the ballot question is open to misinterpretation. I can confirm that we have had many responses in the consultation about the ballot question. Our first principle was to make absolutely clear on the ballot paper what the question means. The formulation on which we consulted had two alternative statements. That was not popular and could have been confusing for parents. We decided that a single statement pointing to the possible change that might result from the ballot was best. Clearly it makes no sense to have a single statement proposing a status quo and not to mention the alternative. So it is intended that the ballot paper will contain introductory wording which makes clear that the ballot will determine whether or not the grammar schools concerned continue to select pupils for entry through examination of academic achievement--for example, using 11-plus type examinations--or whether admission arrangements are introduced which admit pupils of all abilities. In that context, the ballot question clearly means a change to the admission arrangements for all grammar schools. As my noble friend Lord Ponsonby said, parents will well understand the issue, as they understand it at present, and will be well able to make up their own minds.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked questions about the rules governing the campaigns that will necessarily take place in localities. I can confirm that the Government will shortly be making available guidance--documents on the petition and ballot mechanisms--which will provide further information on acceptable forms of information. The Secretary of State will expect all parties concerned with ballots to have regard to the ballot information code which appears at the back of the regulations. I remind your Lordships' House of the restrictions put in place by Section 107 of the Act, limiting expenditure of public funds by local education authorities and governing bodies. They may only publish factual information, assessment of consequences of a ballot, and statements of intent. I remind your Lordships of the Secretary of State's power to declare a ballot void where he is satisfied that misinformation has rendered the ballot result unsafe.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, raised the issue of meetings. He asked whether the ballot information code could be invoked to stop meetings being held to gather support for either side. That is unlikely if meetings are fairly conducted. The code is intended to set a standard. It is quite reasonable to expect that people running a
The noble Lord asked why parents of children at infant schools were not included if there were a linked infant and junior school. Section 106 of the School Standards and Framework Act only allows those schools which have sent pupils directly to the grammar schools to be defined as feeder schools.
He also raised the question of Sutton with which, as he said, he is well acquainted. The Sutton LEA has 33 per cent. of its secondary pupils in grammar schools. The Nonsuch Girls High School has always been seen as part of the Sutton system, and indeed shares admission arrangements with one of the other grammar schools in Sutton. However, geographically it is just inside Surrey and the Sutton LEA wished for it to be part of the area ballot for the Sutton schools. In order to cater for Nonsuch High School being balloted with the Sutton schools, an area is being prescribed in the regulations made up of Sutton and the ward of Nonsuch. We have considered the options available to us. It is not considered that any area smaller than a ward such as Nonsuch can reasonably be specified as part of an area for ballot purposes. It would not be possible to include Nonsuch High School with the Sutton schools unless it is part of an area ballot.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps he can clarify a point about the ballot information code because the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and I have a different view of it. For once, I hope that she is right. Does the ballot information code apply only to the LEA and the school governing body, in which case I am happier in some of my concerns, or does it apply to anyone taking part in the campaign on either side, as appears from the regulations? That is my real concern.
While the Minister is waiting for the answer to my query, perhaps I may revert to another issue. I will not detain your Lordships' House on a particular Sutton point, but it might help the supply of the answer that I am seeking. The argument that has been raging between our director of education and the civil servants suggests that the Nonsuch ward is included because a slightly higher percentage of pupils in the first three years at Nonsuch High School happen to come from that ward. It is a little under 6 per cent. That was the reason we were given; not the reason the Minister has just given.
If that were the reason, as set out in the letter from his official which I happen to have with me, there happen to be at least three other grammar schools wholly within the London Borough of Sutton, some of which are, as it happens, close to the Croydon border. I wonder whether the department has checked where the pupils from those schools happen to come from. Do most of them come from outside Sutton? Does anything approaching 6 per cent. happen to come from, for instance, a Croydon ward? If so, why is that not included in the relevant
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