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Lord Tope: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, begged the forgiveness of the House for introducing this amendment at an extraordinarily late stage in a Bill to which it does not relate at all. I noticed that the Minister shook her head as if she was in some doubt as to whether to forgive the noble Baroness. I, too, felt some doubt as to whether to forgive the noble Baroness. We had a late night last night discussing this Bill and I was not best pleased, when driving home in the early hours of the morning, to hear that we would discuss this issue today. However, having heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, I now forgive the noble Baroness. But I am not sure whether the Minister will be equally forgiving for the same reason. If it was a repeat of his second speech, from my point of view it certainly bore repeating.
I agreed with virtually everything that the noble Lord said, except his comments about the Government getting a reputation for ballot rigging. That is not quite right. The Government are getting a reputation for ballot rigging and still getting the wrong
However, he was right to put into context the fact that for the past 25 or 30 years the overwhelming majority of children in this country have been educated in comprehensive schools and that the overwhelming majority of parents have been very satisfied with those schools. In some cases they are perhaps more satisfied than they should be; nevertheless they are satisfied.
Standards have been rising and examination results have been getting better. It is as well to remember that because all the publicity has been and, I am sorry to say, continues to be about failing schools and failing teachers. That gives a wholly wrong impression of the education system in this country. None of us defends or wants failing schools, but we must remember that they are a small minority.
I was going to spare the House my experiences in the London Borough of Sutton but, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, has made personal reference to them--and as he bears some personal responsibility for those experiences--I shall spend a few moments on them, partly because they are illustrative of the history of education in this country over the past 15 years.
My party was elected to control in the London Borough of Sutton in 1986, a very significant year. If there was a single issue in that election--and I think that there was--it was our unequivocal statement that we would reorganise to get rid of the selective system in Sutton and introduce comprehensive education. We preferred to say that we were going to abolish the secondary modern schools, something I hear very little of from the Conservative Benches.
In the previous election the Conservatives had elected 47 councillors; at the 1986 election they returned with 21. At the previous election we had elected three councillors; we came back with 28. I felt that that was a clear endorsement not only of my party but of the principal issue on which the election was fought.
We went ahead with comprehensive reorganisation. In different schools around the borough, I chaired 16 meetings on our proposals. I can tell the House that the meetings in our four grammar schools were not wholly comfortable. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, recently had a similar experience in Sutton and knows what I am talking about.
Then came the 1987 general election. During that election and immediately afterwards, the Secretary of State--the same noble Lord who attacked me earlier--made it clear that there was no way he would agree to a reorganisation which would get rid of four grammar schools and introduce comprehensive education. If there was such a reorganisation, the Government made it very clear that they would introduce grant-maintained status. Our four grammar schools were in the first wave of applications for grant-maintained status. They were, of course, given grant-maintained status--at which point, incidentally, we stopped funding them as a council. Of course we fund the
That is enough about Sutton. It is often said that there are now only 163 grammar schools in the country and that this is a minor issue. Certainly in many parts of the country it is a non-issue, but in areas such as Sutton where there are still grammar schools, it is a major issue. It is an issue not only for the 163 grammar schools but for the large numbers of other schools in those areas which are directly--and usually adversely--affected by the existence of a selective system.
Lord Baker of Dorking: Before the noble Lord leaves Sutton completely, perhaps I may correct his impression of the 1987 election. In no speech that I made in that election did I fetter my discretion as Secretary of State, should an application come before me, for the abolition of grammar schools. I was waiting for an application from the Borough of Sutton because it had Liberals in control and they were committed to abolishing grammar schools. They did not make that submission. That is the point. Nationally, the Liberal Democrat Party believes in the abolition of grammar schools, but when it has them in its boroughs it goes on funding them.
Let me make it clear that one of the most difficult decisions that our group in Sutton had to take after the election was whether or not to pursue our reorganisation proposals. Many of us felt very strongly that we would. I accept of course that the Secretary of State would not have been so foolish as to say anything that would have fettered his discretion. But do any of your Lordships believe that, in the context of 1987-88, the new Secretary of State for Education, the right honourable Kenneth Baker, would have approved a system which would abolish four grammar schools? I doubt whether any noble Lord, on any side of the House, believes that that would have happened.
So, as a new administration which had inherited years of neglect in our education system, we had to decide whether to concentrate on the things that we could achieve or to fight what was then a hopeless cause. If there should be any doubt about my personal commitment at that time, I should inform the House that my two sons passed the 11-plus in Sutton. Both of them went to our only comprehensive school--if there can be a comprehensive school in a selective system; it was as comprehensive as it could be--and last year my elder son graduated with a first-class honours degree. So I have no problems at all about where my commitment lies and where my party's commitment lies locally.
Turning now to wider issues than Sutton, selection affects more schools than grammar schools; it affects all schools in the area of a selective system. More importantly, it affects all children in the area of a selective system.
Returning for a moment to Sutton--again only for illustrative purposes--last September in our borough, where we still have a selective system, only 14 per cent of the children from Sutton primary schools gained a place in one of the Sutton grammar schools. That is how bad it has now become. More than 50 per cent of the intake to our grammar schools now comes from outside the borough. I am not a petty nationalist or a petty Suttonist. It is a mark of the success of those schools. But it is also a mark of the effect that it has locally and how unfair and how divisive it is within the selective area.
The Government's record is shameful. I think we all recall the much-quoted phrase at the 1995 Labour Party conference, "Watch my lips". Many did watch his lips. I have not the slightest doubt that the intention at that time was to give the impression--whether or not it was meant then I do not know--that should a Labour government be elected we would see the end of selection. I have no doubt at all that that is what was intended at the time.
It is said that we have had to wait five years to learn that that was a joke. Those of us who spent many hours going through the School Standards and Framework Bill realised very quickly at that time that it was a joke. For a party that says it is still opposed to selection and committed to ending it, the ballot system it has introduced--with all the hoops and hurdles that those of us who want a fair ballot have to go through--is a very strange way of showing a commitment to abolishing selection. What has happened since has been shameful. Whichever way one would vote in such a ballot--assuming one was lucky enough to get a vote in such a ballot--it has been shameful. The Government do not come out of this with any credit at all.
I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that if I were to join him in the Division Lobby today--which I will not--it would not be because of any equivocal feelings about grammar schools on my part. No one who knows me locally thinks that I have any equivocal feelings on that issue. If I were to join him it would be because I share, for opposite reasons, the views expressed from the Conservative Benches about the ballot system. It is a dreadful system. At the time we argued that these decisions should properly be made by the democratically elected and accountable local education authority after full and proper consultation. That remains our position.
We shall not support the amendment. It is an attempt to turn the clock back to a bygone age. Now and in the future we should be paying attention to creating an education system which is not divisive and which prepares all of our people of all ages for a thorough learning-for-life education in the 21st century. We should not be harking back to the so-called golden days of the 1950s, which were golden only for a small percentage of our children.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, there has already been a great deal of debate about the relative merits of comprehensive and selective forms of education and I am at a loss to know what more can be added on this occasion. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that the Government have explained their position on many occasions, although I am perfectly happy to do so again.
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