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Grammar Schools

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2011

It is a pleasure, Mr Brady, to serve under your chairmanship, the irony of which will not be lost on hon. Members who are present. I know that you take a keen interest in education matters.

I applied for this debate because grammar schools are an important and integral part of the education system in the United Kingdom. They provide social mobility and opportunity for thousands of children every year and are hugely popular with pupils and parents alike in the areas where they are found and beyond. It may help if I give a brief history of how they were established.

Grammar schools were created during the second world war and promoted by the Labour Government that was formed in 1945, but it is fair to say that subsequent Labour Governments have had a less enthusiastic approach to them. In 1965, Harold Wilson declared an end to selection in schools—a diktat that was withdrawn by Ted Heath in 1970, after which date the matter was left to local education authorities. That was again changed in 1974 by the re-elected Harold Wilson, who obliged LEAs to close grammar schools, a situation that was repealed in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher. The Government’s recent announcement allows an expansion of existing schools, and I congratulate the Minister on that announcement.

Before my hon. Friend finishes his history lesson, which is timely—I congratulate him on obtaining this important debate—surely one problem in the post-war era and one reason for the hostility on one side of politics to the grammar school system was the failure of the plan to build up technical schools and colleges as part of the 1944 Butler Act settlement. Will he congratulate the Government on their tremendous work in the past 18 months in developing technical schools, which I hope will work in tandem with a strong and thriving grammar school system well into the future?

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent and correct point. Having a range of options available for children is undoubtedly the key to a good and successful education system. We should not try to pretend that all children are alike and that they have the same needs and desires in the education system. The Minister’s recent announcement is a huge step towards the goal that I would like to reach—new grammar schools where parents and local authorities want that option.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is not only those at grammar schools who like grammar schools and secondary modern schools? Rugby, where I used to live, had both sorts and they were very welcome.

Yes. Grammar schools have a positive effect on non-selective schools in the areas where they are found. Boroughs where there are grammar schools tend to have some of the best exam results, which is evidence of the positive impact that grammar schools may have not just on their own environment, but beyond.

I do not claim that grammar schools are for everyone. It is a case of horses for courses. Some children flourish in academic surroundings, and others do not. We must cater for all children, and grammar schools play a vital role in that diversity. A one-size-fits-all education system must never be our goal. Such a system can only help one sort of child. Children have different needs, talents and capabilities, and our education system should reflect that.

I make no secret of my support for selective education. It gave me the opportunity to specialise in academic work within the state system, an opportunity that tends to be available elsewhere only in the private school system. I do not claim to be part of a rags-to-riches tale—I never wore rags and, unfortunately, I am not rich—but I come from a modest working-class background. My father was a milkman. I went to the local state primary school, and I was fortunate to pass the 11-plus and to go to Dartford grammar school. I used that opportunity to become a solicitor and now a Member of Parliament. The social mobility that that education gave me would be difficult to find outside the grammar school system. It is wrong to suggest that only comprehensive schools provide equal opportunities for children.

If it is hard to find social mobility outside the grammar school system, how does the hon. Gentleman account for my social mobility as a comprehensive school pupil?

I am not saying that there are no examples of social mobility among non-selective schools, but in my experience it is common for children who go to grammar schools to benefit enormously from the social mobility that they offer.

What is unique about grammar schools is that they enable specialisation in academic work, which is not always available, not should it be, in other schools. In some areas with exclusively comprehensive schools, the catchment area around good non-selective schools experiences higher house prices than in areas around less-well-performing comprehensive schools, which leads to poorer families being unable to send their children to the best performing schools in the area.

To return to the point made by the Gentleman, social mobility may suffer in areas without selective education. Grammar schools provide an equal chance for children from poorer backgrounds. Common sense suggests that children will learn more when placed with children of similar academic ability.

Grammar schools clearly push academia, and push pupils to achieve above what they may think they can do. An example in my area is Regent House school in Newtownards, where one young fellow achieved six A-levels, four of which were 100% passes. That proves that if children are in the right school and are pushed hard, they do well.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I think I am right in saying that Northern Ireland has a completely selective school system. I have taken the liberty of obtaining some figures on exam success in Northern Ireland compared with England. I do not doubt that there are caveats attached, and I will give him the figures after the debate. According to the Library, in England, just under 70% of GCSE entries were awarded a grade C or higher, compared with just under 75% in Northern Ireland; and 76% of A-level entries in England were awarded a grade C or higher compared with 84% in Northern Ireland. That is the proof of the pudding. Northern Ireland has a completely selective process and, with caveats attached, it has improved exam success as a result.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Andreas Schleicher, statistician at the OECD, who is often cited by the Secretary of State as being the most important man in education, makes it clear in his pronouncements that the best and most effective education system for all pupils is non-selective?

Education will always provoke differences of opinion. Some academics disagree with other academics, but common sense seems to dictate that it is right to have different types of schools because we have different types of children. What is inherently wrong with the comprehensive system is that it is a one-size-fits-all system. It tries to put all children, of all types and varieties, into one bag. Common sense dictates that that surely cannot be right.

Common sense also suggests that children learn more when they are placed with other children with similar abilities, and that has been shown in the streaming that takes place more and more often in non-selective schools. I cannot understand why some people believe that it is acceptable to stream within a school, but not between schools. That simply does not make any sense whatever. Grammar schools are generally good schools, and heaven knows we need to look after good schools. We need them to ensure that we educate our population and that the country’s future is secure.

More than 98% of children who attend a grammar school achieve five GCSEs or more compared with 80% in comprehensive and independent schools. I concede that those figures may not cause surprise, because selective schools are, by their nature, full of children with a record of academic achievement. However, when we look at A-level success where there has already been a record of achievement at the GCSE stage, grammar schools again out-perform all other forms of schooling. In addition, boroughs with grammar schools tend to out-perform boroughs with none, so grammar schools help all the schools in the area to perform better.

In my constituency of Dartford, we have four grammar schools: Dartford grammar school, where I was a pupil; Dartford grammar school for girls, where I am a governor; Wilmington grammar school for boys; and Wilmington grammar school for girls. Each offers something different, and each provides academic specialisation, which is highly sought after in the area, particularly by children from modest backgrounds. My neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) is a passionate supporter of grammar schools in his constituency. I know that his constituents enjoy the benefit of grammar schools in my area, and vice versa.

It is a myth that non-selective schools in selective school areas inevitably suffer. In Dartford, we have first-rate non-selective academies, one of which is the most over-subscribed school in Kent. They form as crucial a part of the educational system as the grammar schools and benefit from the existence of grammar schools.

We all know that the existence and indeed excellence and elitism of grammar schools have been a matter of dispute in our party. Does my hon. Friend agree—I hope the Minister will discuss this later—that if we can commit to making academies the grammar schools of the 21st century, places of great elitism and excellence, the culture war that has existed within the Conservative party can come to a close and we can look firmly to the future?

I very much hope that that will be considered in due course by the Department. I have spoken about the benefit that grammar schools offer children from poorer backgrounds. Children who receive free school meals in grammar schools achieve almost an equal success those who do not have free school meals—95.6%, compared with an overall figure of 98%. However, pupils in non-selective schools who have free schools meals achieve far less in examinations—30.9%, compared with an overall figure of 55%. That confirms my point that pupils from the poorest backgrounds have most to gain from the grammar school system.

My hon. Friend highlights the potential for academies, and I welcome the freedom that the Government have given to schools to become academies. The new freedoms allow schools to become flexible in their approach to education. The Department for Education has wisely allowed grammar schools to continue to select on academic ability when they convert to academy status. I hope that the Department will soon consider allowing academies that did not previously select on academic ability to do so. Grammar schools are popular. They provide excellent education, offer social mobility and enable many children to reach their maximum potential. We need to allow them to flourish.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this extremely important debate. His commitment to grammar schools is well known. I note that he is a distinguished alumnus of Dartford grammar school, along with Sir Mick Jagger.

Reading school, in my constituency, can boast my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) as Old Redingensians. While not easily described as rock stars, they have equally made their mark in the world of politics.

My hon. Friend has missed out the black sheep of the family: the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) was also an alumnus of Reading school. Despite the disadvantage of a grammar school education, he still managed to go to Oxford and become a Cabinet Minister, although in a Labour Government.

That is an excellent intervention. I recall that his hairstyle back in those days was very much like a rock star’s.

As a keen supporter of grammar schools, I have campaigned vigorously to protect them in my constituency, and I am delighted to contribute to the debate today. Grammars have played a significant part in the important role of social mobility. Through selection, grammars offer our most academic young people and constituents across the country excellent educational opportunities. Academic selection in secondary education is often the focus of rigorous debate, and we are getting a flavour of that this morning. Some have argued that grammar schools are an impediment to social mobility, but that view is profoundly wrong. Our 160-odd grammar schools continue to offer fantastic opportunities to gifted pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds, thus unlocking all the potential that an academically rigorous education can provide.

Far from impeding social mobility, our grammar schools encapsulate the driving principle of aspiration and ambition. The Prime Minister has said, when staving off class-based attacks from the left about his educational background, “It matters not where you come from, but where you are going.” Grammar schools reflect that ethos. They are precisely about where someone is going, not where they are from. They provide a ladder of opportunity, and I fail to see how that is an impediment, as some have described.

If we take social mobility seriously, as I do, it is fundamentally important that our grammar schools are safeguarded and that threats to their future are taken seriously, but those who wish to threaten and destroy our grammar schools do not rest. Their commitment to vandalising some of the best schools that state education provides continues undiminished, as I recently found in Reading.

Reading is on the front line of the battle to protect our grammar schools. Reading East is fortunate to have two excellent grammar schools: Reading school, which I have already mentioned, and Kendrick school, which is a girls’ grammar school. Both schools feature at the top of the nation’s league tables for educational attainment, a fact of which I am enormously proud. Despite their excellence, Reading’s grammar schools find themselves firmly fixed in the crosshairs of those who seek to kick away the ladder of opportunity that they offer by removing their ability to select pupils. This year, a mere 10 Reading residents formed an anonymous group to put a petition together to trigger a ballot to end grammar school education in Reading.

Without wishing to suck this debate into the realm of legal complexities, the law pertaining to a ballot was confusing and flawed, because the grammars had converted to academy status, as they had been encouraged to do by the Government. A lack of synergy was exposed between annex E of the academy funding agreements and the provisions of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the legislation that sets out the regulations pertaining to grammar school ballots. The confusion focused on the 20% petition threshold of local people eligible to vote in the ballot—namely, parents at feeder primary schools.

It is also worth noting that the ballot itself, should it have gone ahead, was undemocratic, because it comprised only parents from primary feeder schools and not the parents of pupils currently in grammar schools. Why should parents of children attending a grammar school be disfranchised in decisions about the school’s future, as parents and their children will be affected by the outcome of any ballot?

Is it right that 10 faceless people can cause huge instability at local schools that have served the people of Reading so well for so long? Recently, when those faceless individuals started that ballot process, it caused huge problems. How does a school cope with a threat to its future? The uncertainty it causes for staff, parents and pupils is significant. Enormous effort and expense have to go into administering the ballot and putting the case for the school, taking time away from the important teaching effort that has to go on. It was both wrong and unfair, and it should never have been allowed to happen.

In short, the episode in Reading exposed a gaping democratic deficit whereby a tiny, unrepresentative part of Reading’s community managed to unsettle two schools along with their staff, pupils and parents. Because of the disruption and potential expense to our grammar schools, I hope that the Minister will look at the initial trigger point for initiating such a ballot, which should surely be well above 10 anonymous people. Working closely with Reading school’s head teacher, Mr John Weeds, we lobbied Ministers in the Department for Education. As a result, we have an undertaking from the Minister that amendments will be made to the funding agreement, which I hope will achieve greater clarity.

For now, the threat to Reading’s grammar schools has been temporarily beaten back, but it could return at any time. If they wish, the same 10 people in Reading could return with their protest year after year, and the Government must change the rules so that, if a ballot attempt fails one year, it cannot be constantly repeated. Such a strategy could become a device for destabilising grammar schools all over the country, and I would have grave concerns for the remaining grammar schools in England should it be repeated elsewhere. In defending the few grammar schools that we have left, it seems that the price of their retention will be constant vigilance, unless the Government make significant and necessary changes to the legislation. I am therefore encouraged to see that so many determined hon. Members are participating in this important debate.

To remove grammar schools would be to remove a specialist part of our state education system that seeks to maximise a pupil’s academic potential. Critics of grammar schools—usually, although not exclusively, from the left—say that those who do not pass the selection criteria for a grammar school education will in some way be left behind by the system. That argument, however, is flawed. Not every pupil is academic in orientation, but that does not mean that their potential should be left unfulfilled. Too often, our state education system has let down technically gifted as well as academically gifted pupils, and we need schools that reflect the abilities of all pupils.

That is why I am delighted that university technical colleges are growing in number and strength, and last week I joined Lord Baker of Dorking in celebrating and promoting the success of such colleges at a parliamentary reception with rest of the UTC community—a community which now looks more like a movement. By departing from a one-size-fits-all approach to education, both types of school serve the interests of social mobility. It is about being holistic, serving pupils in the system and reflecting their needs accordingly. Our grammar schools do precisely that, and they deserve our unwavering support.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) for securing the debate. He has said many things that I agree with, particularly on the Kent grammar school system.

When I arrived in Kent as a parliamentary candidate, I had no great understanding of the grammar school system, although I did have an open mind. I wanted to find out what parents felt about the issue, and when knocking on doors I came across families in which one child went to a grammar school and the other to the high school. Sometimes the child at the high school went on to sixth form at the grammar school. I found that Kent had an integrated system and that it was impossible to knock on a door and say, “That is a grammar school house,” or, “That is a high school house.” Perhaps that has something to do with the number of grammar schools in Kent. In my constituency, as in that of my hon. Friend, there are four grammar schools. Therefore, 30% of young people in my constituency go to a grammar school, and it also allows children who have finished their high school education to attend sixth-form college at a grammar school. People can access that excellence at any time.

One thing that struck me very starkly was social mobility. We look for excellence in education, and no one disputes that grammar schools provide that. There is always, however, a big question about whether grammar schools attract only children from middle-class families. One school in my constituency, Chatham House, surveyed its pupils’ parents and found that only 20% had been through higher education. Therefore, 80% of children at that school will be the first generation to go into further education or university. For me, that provided a stark understanding of the issue, and it sounded a clarion call that we are talking about a route into higher education for a first generation of children.

In one of the richer areas of east Kent—an interesting thing to say, because the area has high deprivation— Sir Roger Manwood’s grammar school in Sandwich has an average number of children on free school meals. Again, that reasserts the message coming across from teachers.

I am sure that the statistics that the hon. Lady has quoted are correct, but is she aware that overall, the ratio of state to grammar schools is 25:1? There are 158 pupils on free school meals in non-grammar schools for every one in a grammar school. The ratio is 158:1, rather than 25:1, which is what it should be. Is the grammar school mentioned by the hon. Lady highly unusual?

It is not unusual for me or for parents who send their children to grammar schools in my area, but different counties have different systems. Kent has a high number of grammar schools that are attended by between 25% and 30% of children. That offers a huge opportunity for young people from diverse backgrounds to access the grammar school system. Other counties have few grammar schools. That is a pity, because the schools attract only a small number of children, which may not include a representative percentage of the population as a whole. In many ways, that supports my advocacy of the need for more grammar schools to create a proper mixed environment and educational system that is appropriate for different children with different abilities at different ages.

As my hon. Friends and I have said, grammar schools do not work in isolation, and when seeking excellence in our grammar schools, it is crucial that we also seek it in our high schools and other schools in the area. We cannot promote grammar schools without promoting a mixed educational environment.

Kent is lucky to have very good high schools, and I ask the Department to look at how they are judged during Ofsted reports. It is important that the system in which those schools operate is understood by Ofsted and that the 30% of children in my area who enter the grammar school system is understood in the context of what those high schools have achieved in that mixed and selective system.

I wish to be clear on three points. First, we must not undermine excellence. I was concerned to hear about the campaign in Reading, because if we end up with a situation in which grammar schools, which are excellent schools, are threatened or put under pressure by parents, we will do our education system a big disservice. Secondly, I would like the Department to be clear about the opportunities and social mobility offered by grammar schools, when there are enough of them in an area to enable them to increase their intake. Thirdly, I will always be dedicated to my high schools, and I am clear that they need to achieve a huge amount. The Government must understand the selective nature of the system in which they operate.

We are looking to increase opportunities for schools to expand, extend their interests and attract parental choice, and that will be the same for grammar schools, high schools and technical colleges. At the same time, we must maintain and sustain the excellence that currently exists in our grammar school system.

Like other hon. Members, I know how dear this subject is to you, Mr Brady. No doubt you are having occasion to bite your tongue, to be an impartial Chair.

I start with the usual caveat that I enter in such debates. The vast majority of children go to comprehensive schools, and if we are to remain a first-class economy, we must raise education standards for all children in the United Kingdom, in whatever sector they are being educated. However, that does not mean that we should not value and cherish the 160-odd grammar schools. Looking around the Chamber, I see a smattering of the geography of Britain where parents banded together in the bad old days and managed to maintain their grammar schools, as we have done in the Poole and Bournemouth area. These schools have suffered hostility and sometimes indifference. I am glad that at last we have a Government who appreciate the value that these 160 schools bring to the UK and the chances that they give to the children who go to them.

One of the saddest things over the past 20 or 30 years because of the changes is that a bigger divide has developed in the UK, in that those from a middle-class background who can afford to pay for education have more opportunities, whereas some of those from more disadvantaged backgrounds have found that, with the demise of grammar schools in many areas, their opportunities have not expanded as much as they might have done 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. It is still amazing to me to see the people whom this country has produced who make a major contribution to business, to universities and to the media who came from a grammar school background.

We must cherish and support the grammar schools that we have. They provide a beacon for the academy programme. I understand why the Government have focused more on academies than on grammar schools. Clearly, everyone is in favour of grammar schools, but not everyone is in favour of the 11-plus. Rather than arguing about that, it was probably right and proper to get on with the academy programme, which seems to be building up a head of steam. The existence of grammar schools will allow many academies to look at the way in which they teach their pupils. I am thinking of the streaming, the uniforms and the whole ethos of those schools. If the expansion of the academy programme sees many academies adopt those things, that may be a quicker way of ensuring that the widest possible number of pupils get a better chance in life.

We come into politics to make a difference, or at least we hope to make a difference. Of course, it is terribly difficult for any of us to measure what difference we make. However, the changes that the Government are making to school admissions, particularly as they relate to grammar schools, really are a major difference, because the presumption against expansion is to go, which means that good schools will be able to expand. I have no doubt that one of the most important announcements made by the Government is the one that will allow grammar schools to expand, because they are popular and more people will wish to go to them, providing that they meet the standards. That is the first staging post on the way to cherishing and perhaps expanding this sector in the future as a major beacon for educational standards.

I do not intend to say much more, but the number of colleagues present for the debate says something about how strongly they feel. The Minister and I are old friends, and I am pleased with and proud of what he is doing in the Department to improve standards and opportunities not only for those from prosperous backgrounds, but for those from poorer backgrounds.

Like other hon. Members, I am the product of a grammar school—Hyde County grammar school, which was destroyed in the grammar school wars. On the other side of things, I went into teaching in 1973, in the heyday of comprehensivisation, with a genuine desire for comprehensives to succeed, because there was, in a sense, no golden age. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) who remarked on the failure of the tripartite system, because there was not a tripartite system in most of the country. To be fair, in the 1950s and ’60s, although the grammar schools were successful, both parties were worried about the failure across Britain in terms of skills and attainment of those who did not have the chance to go to grammar schools.

As I have said, I entered teaching at the time of comprehensivisation. The phrase used at the time was that it would be a grammar school education for everybody. My first comprehensive school was in Tottenham—Northumberland Park school, just behind the Spurs ground. In a sense, that was my education in how political education is.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this debate. It is a pity that there are no Labour Members present other than the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), but I hope that we will hear from him that this will be the end of the grammar school wars.

Well, there you go. What I am trying to say is that I hope—my hon. Friend the Minister has already indicated this—we will see the end of the grammar school wars. I think that all parties have learned from the mistakes that we made and the destruction of good schools that took place in the genuine attempt to create all-purpose comprehensives for everybody.

Let us consider what happened in the ’70s and ’80s. I shall give a personal example. I remember as a teacher in Tottenham at the time trying to bring in an A-level course—France under Louis XIV—and being challenged by other teachers who said, “Do you think they’re good enough for this, Eric?” The penny then began to drop that somehow there was a dumbing down in the system. No teacher in that comprehensive sent their child to it. Most moved to the higher reaches of Hornsey to get near the comprehensive there. There was a classification of comprehensives, but only the middle-class, trained professionals knew the distinctions.

My family background is that I was the first one who passed the 11-plus and all that stuff, but my parents and grandparents did not understand the system. I just went to a school where I managed to pass the 11-plus and ended up in a grammar school. Hon. Members can imagine that loads of parents in Tottenham did not understand that there were distinctions between the schools. We must remember that that was the day and age when schools did not publish their results. There were huge battles to get schools to publish results, so people had to be really in the know, to know which comprehensive produced better results than the other comprehensives.

Then there were all the other things that we tried. I started off teaching mixed ability. Then we tried setting and then, as has been said, streaming. Then we had social priority schools and social priority staff, which meant that we got extra money. I managed to keep that extra money until 2000, when I finished, but that was another problem with the bureaucratic system. In addition to all those different attempts to do things, there were new subjects, including integrated humanities, cross-curricular studies and sociology—I think I happen to be the only Conservative in education who ever taught sociology to A-level. We made all those attempts to do something with the system, having destroyed the previous system, even though, as hon. Members have said, every school and every area are totally different. If results can be measured, people can understand those results, and if the schools are achieving, let them get on with it.

One of the bravest things that we did in opposition was finally to stop the wars and say that we support the academies programme. I hope that that will be reciprocated and that we can pull out of the political wars about education. I now find myself the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, where there are two grammar schools. One is Lancaster royal grammar school, which claims a history going back to the 13th century. It is a boarding state grammar school. I thank the Minister, who had a meeting with some of us who represent state boarding schools. I hope that that is another area in which we might see an increase now that we are in the era of free schools—let them get on with it. My area also has Lancaster girls’ grammar school, which dates back to 1907. Those schools are very successful. They are outstanding schools that provide outstanding opportunities for children. Alongside them, my area has Church of England schools, such as Ripley St Thomas school, which has been rated outstanding by Ofsted. Central Lancaster high school, a comprehensive school, is just about to get its first sixth form. That school provides a very good education for those who do not want a grammar school education or a religious school. In a sense, everything is there. There are no problems in my area—touch wood—with choice in education, simply because there is huge variety, which is the key. As I have said, we must pull the politics out, let schools get on with it and allow them to prove by their results what they can do.

I welcome the announcement that grammar schools will be allowed to expand, but I ask the Minister to go further. On selection criteria, the school admissions code specifically mentions selective schools and

“designated grammar schools that rank children according to their performance in a test and allocate places to those who score highest”.

It then has some rules about siblings who can or cannot go to such schools. If we are to go the whole hog on free schools—if we are letting 100 flowers bloom and all that—let us start pulling out the regulation and discrimination that have been built up against grammar schools, which hon. Members say provide a successful education for children in their patch.

Beyond that, grammar schools that have gone for academy status are raising the issue of the possible impact of funding still being under the control of local education authorities and school forums, where there is a predominance of non-academies. There is still work to be done on that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) has said, there is also discrimination because people can call for a ballot over which school they get. Let us put an end to all that.

The debate is about grammar schools. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) has said, they make up a minority of schools, but they are still very successful. Let us put an end to these arguments about which kind of schools we have, which should be up to the local area and to parents. We should enable people to have the education that they want for their children. The Government’s responsibility should simply be to measure success and to build on it, and grammar schools have been one part of that success.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on raising this issue. All of us are saying that grammar schools provide excellent education for all children from all backgrounds. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) explained most powerfully, we would not necessarily know what schools people’s children go to when we are knocking on doors while out canvassing.

For me, the debate is about acknowledging grammar schools and the excellent work they do. It is also about acknowledging the part that they play in the educational system. There are a number of different kinds of schools, and grammar schools are just one, but we cannot run away from the fact that they do an excellent job. They need to be supported, and I am delighted that the Government are backing them, which will enable them to flourish.

Grammar schools produce consistent, successful results and well-rounded citizens and adults. I say that as a previous governor of Calday Grange grammar, which is 365 years old this year. I was most impressed by the way in which the parents there came together to support not only the school, but the pupils in it. I was also impressed by the community engagement there. If parents want grammar schools and support them—this one has been going for 365 years, and there are many more like it, not just in Wirral West, but right across Wirral—we must keep hold of them. Parents know what is right for their kids and they want these schools to keep going.

The successful results of grammar schools in Wirral West speak for themselves, so let me give just a couple of examples. On the average point score per student, Calday Grange grammar gets 34.5% above the average in the country, Upton Hall school for girls gets 37% above the average and West Kirby grammar gets nearly 40% above the average. On the five A to C grades at GCSE, Calday Grange grammar is 44.5% higher than the average, Upton Hall is 35.5% higher and West Kirby grammar school is 43.5% higher. That is outstanding, and it is part of the grammar school system. Why try to mend something that is not broken? Why take away something that is unbelievably successful?

Wirral grammar school for girls had a 100% pass rate for A-level students, with 43% of its pupils getting A* and A grades and 73% getting between A* and B grades. The school is unbelievably successful. It is ranked in the top 100 state schools in the country in The Sunday Times list.

My area desperately needs great schools—I can say that because I am from Merseyside. In fact, every area could say the same. That really is key when we look at the future generation we are creating and at social mobility. Grammar schools have to be the engines for social mobility in communities.

Grammar schools are academic schools, and our top universities look to them. More than 1,000 grammar school pupils went to Oxford and Cambridge after taking A-levels in 2008. In areas such as mine, grammar schools provide an outlet for academic potential.

We all watch BBC and ITV and select excellence in dancing, singing or some other kind of performance—nobody has a problem with that. We all vote on these things and say that someone can win because they are the best. Why do we have a problem with looking at academic excellence and selecting people in that way, when the whole country is quite happy to send in a text to vote in these shows?

Why do people vote for Russell Grant in “Strictly Come Dancing” if this is about excellence? I cannot understand that.

To be fair, I think that man has got move and groove and slinky hips, and I will be voting for him. As an ex-dancer, I was taken by his dancing abilities.

I welcome what the Government are doing. I welcome free schools and academies, because I believe in choice. The grammar schools in Wirral West are moving to become academies and following the academy route. As they progress towards becoming academies, I hope they will remain true to their beliefs, aims, aspirations and founding principles. I hope they will remain the same when they become academies. I hope that our support for them will allow them to flourish, that we do not change a winning formula and that we ensure that these excellent schools remain in our community.

What the coalition Government are doing is a refreshing change. They are offering choice, pushing for discipline, looking to support and encourage all sorts of schools and looking for achievement in every area. Yes, there must be academic achievement, but there must be achievement and fulfilment for every child. What some might do in academia, others might do through practical skills, while others might provide for their community in a very different way. I support all those kids, because they all have a talent; we just have to find out what theirs is and nurture them.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Like everyone who has spoken before me, I am a strong supporter of grammar schools. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, I am a product of the grammar school in the constituency that I represent.

Rugby retains grammar schools, but we have the best of both worlds because we also have non-selective schools. We have a non-selective school in Ashlawn that has a grammar stream, and we have two high-class, selective, single-sex grammar schools—Lawrence Sheriff school for boys and Rugby high school for girls. I should declare an interest, in that my daughter is a pupil at the girls’ school.

As I say, Rugby has grammar schools, and I am a product of Lawrence Sheriff. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) was there a few years before me, and I came to this place with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who also went to the school. The school therefore has a proud tradition of producing Members of Parliament.

At the school, I was in a class with the sons of cement factory workers and scrap metal merchants, each of whom was the first member of their family to go to university. I therefore have a good understanding of the role of grammar schools in providing social mobility.

We retain grammar schools in Rugby because of the hard work and diligence of an earlier generation of politicians, who fought to retain our selective schools in the face of the comprehensivisation of Britain. The fact that we have grammar schools is a major asset for the community that I represent. Our schools are in high demand. Parents move into our area to provide their children with the opportunity to attend a grammar school, and they also apply from substantial distances—20 or 30 miles away—to secure that kind of education for their children. We know the schools are popular, and it is because of the high standards and excellence that a grammar school provides. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford gave a full account of the academic qualifications secured at most grammar schools.

I am pleased that the Government recognise the strengths and qualities that grammar schools can bring the country, and that they have brought forward a policy that will enable them to expand. In Rugby, we have been looking forward to the expansion of our grammar schools in the past few years, because of our party’s policy to permit them to grow where there is population growth. Rugby has a very positive approach to new housing development. We have a site that is expected to take 6,200 new homes in the next 20 years, and we are expecting the grammar school provision to increase in proportion. It is great news that we may be able to go further.

I am anxious to ensure that our grammar schools should be available for the broadest possible number of children in our community. I have one or two anxieties about the selection process that will take place in an era of academies. Until now, the selection arrangements for our existing grammar schools have been run by the local authority, and I have two concerns about the process to which the authority has moved in recent years.

The first concern is about the need for parents to opt in. That came home clearly to me much as it did to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys). I was on a doorstep talking to parents who had a bright and gifted young child, who had been denied the opportunity of a grammar school place because they had not filled in the necessary form in time for the child to take the exam. I was horrified that there was a system in which parents must opt in rather than opting out. I should like the Minister to comment on an opt-out system. I recognise that there will be parents who decide that a selective education is not right for their children, or who do not want to put their children under the burden of taking a selection exam. However, if we are to make our grammar schools the engines of social mobility that they should be, we should make certain that a child’s ability to sit the selection exam is not determined by their parents’ ability to get a form filled in on time, and sent back to the school and local authority.

Another issue in my constituency is that fewer girls than boys apply to grammar school. There is no reason for that, other than parents’ not necessarily looking at their girls, and their potential to go to grammar school, in the same way. My hon. Friend’s system would be extremely interesting, in many ways, in relation to opening that up and perhaps increasing the number of girls who apply.

My hon. Friend’s intervention is profound. The essence of my support for grammar schools and, I am sure, of the support of other hon. Members present, is that they should be available to all children. We want them to be vehicles of social mobility. We want children from less privileged backgrounds to go to them; so my heart went out to the parents I met whose daughter had been denied the opportunity of a grammar school education.

Why are not primary schools encouraging parents to put their children in for the examinations, and opting in on behalf of the children? Does my hon. Friend agree that primary schools do not do enough to get their children into grammar schools?

Absolutely. I share my hon. Friend’s view. One of the difficulties is that in certain primary schools there is an expectation that children will sit the selection exam, whereas in other schools, perhaps in less well-off areas, the expectation may not be present; but it should be. Those schools should put all their children forward, to give them the opportunity to participate in a selective education.

I have a second point about the selection process on which I would like the Minister to comment. I have mentioned my daughter, who is currently at grammar school. My other daughter, who is older, sat the exam 10 or 12 years earlier, when the entrants sat several practice papers in school and then took the actual paper in school—an environment that they were all entirely comfortable with. I am sure that that enabled each child sitting the paper to do their best. By the time my younger daughter took the exam, it had been moved to a separate examination centre. At the age of 11, with the entire cohort of other children of that age, she was taken to a foreign environment—a school they were not familiar with. They sat in rows in the same way we would have sat our GCSE and A-level exams. For many children, the move from the comfortable environment to somewhere completely different was distressing. They are youngsters of 11 years old. Sure, the selection exam should determine which children are the most capable, and who will benefit—

I am very interested in the experience that the hon. Gentleman describes, but is he entirely comfortable with categorising children in that way at the age of 11?

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

Absolutely comfortable. I know as a parent that it is possible to identify at the age of 11 the children who will benefit from the more rigorous academic education that would come through a grammar school. However, I do not want children to be assessed in an environment in which they are not entirely comfortable at such a tender, early age. I urge the Minister to do his utmost to ensure that the process of selection is put on a more even footing and that the system is better able to identify those with the ability and skills to benefit from a grammar school education, rather than those who perform particularly well in an exam on a given day in an unknown environment.

I am very supportive of what the Government are doing in increasing the role of grammar school education, and I look forward to many children benefiting from the changes that we will make in the years to come.

Welcome to our proceedings, Mr Sheridan. We have had a very interesting debate, although I feel somewhat as though I am intruding on a private argument.

I think that there is an argument, because I agree with the Minister that more grammar schools should not open, and I sense an undercurrent among the hon. Members who have spoken that they would like more to open. Perhaps if I am wrong about that, one of them will intervene and tell me so, but no one is standing up to speak, so we can take it that they do not agree with the Minister and that they have an argument with his policy—

In a minute. I will finish and let the hon. Lady intervene in a second, if she will contain her slinky hips, as she said in her speech earlier. I apologise—I should not have said that: I was simply quoting what she said about “Strictly Come Dancing”.

The Minister’s policy is not to open more grammar schools, and I understood from the speeches of other hon. Members that they want to open more, so perhaps the hon. Lady will clarify matters.

I think that if the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I was saying, he would know that I gave full acknowledgment to the grammar schools that we have and the fact that parents want to keep them. My speech was not about increasing them, or making alterations; I was saying that they are an important part of the education system, for which they must be acknowledged.

I accept that one hon. Member in the debate agrees with the Minister’s—and the Government’s—policy that more grammar schools should not be opened. The hon. Lady has made it clear that she agrees with that. I am looking around the Chamber to see whether other hon. Members want to tell us they agree with the Minister, but I do not see any.

I did not speak in the debate, but I understood my hon. Friends to be saying that they were very proud of the grammar schools in their areas and that they wanted them to have the opportunity to expand. I believe that it is Government policy that all good schools should have the opportunity to expand.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I shall take it then that all Government Members present do not wish to see more grammar schools opened across the country, which is the Government’s policy, although they support the Minister’s move to allow existing grammar schools to expand their numbers.

I would say that it would be a good idea to have grammar schools in areas in which they do not currently exist, but I would need to consult my electors before I decided which way to vote.

I take from that that the hon. Gentleman has some doubts about his own Government’s policy in not allowing more grammar schools to be built; that is the logical conclusion of his statement.

We now know that there is a mixed bag of views among Government Members about the matter. I agree with the Minister that we should not build more grammar schools, because selection at age 11, in my view, does not work and is wrong. I will expand on that in a moment.

As the hon. Gentleman is speaking for the Opposition, if he believes that selection at age 11 is wrong, is he in favour of abolishing the 160 grammar schools?

Our policy on the matter is unchanged. It should be up to local parents, via the ballot mechanism described earlier, to decide whether they want to keep the grammar schools that are in their area. Our policy is unchanged from what it has been for many years.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate. When he opened the debate, he talked about a one-size-fits-all education. He told us his story of social mobility, which he attributed to his attendance at grammar school. He seemed to indicate that that kind of social mobility would not be possible without grammar schools, but I have to tell him that that is not correct.

I think that I come from a background similar to the hon. Gentleman’s. My parents both left school at 14. My father worked in the steelworks and my mother was a dinner lady. I attended a comprehensive school and ended up here via various other institutions along the way, including teaching in a comprehensive school, which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) also did. Social mobility is not dependent on attendance at a grammar school. There is conflicting evidence regarding the impact of grammar schools on social mobility, when looked at in the round, and the evidence that the hon. Member for Dartford cited was circumstantial rather than conclusive.

No one here has suggested that it is impossible to have social mobility in non-selective schools. What we are saying is that there is a high degree of social mobility in grammar schools, which we are all proud of.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will clarify something for me. He says that he is against selection at 11, yet his party has a policy of continuing selection at 11 for the 164 remaining grammar schools. Does he want a policy with which he disagrees to remain?

We have made our position clear. Although I am not in favour of selection, it is up to the parents in existing areas, via the ballot mechanism described by the hon. Gentleman, to decide whether they want to keep grammar schools. That has been our policy for many years, and the decision has always been taken in that way at a local level, previously by local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman said that no one is suggesting that social mobility is possible only through the grammar school route. Perhaps that is not what he wanted to suggest, but he made a remark—and I intervened on him, as the record in Hansard will show—that might have implied that that was what he believed. However, I accept the explanation that that is not the case. I will come on to the evidence that says that non-selective systems are more effective than selective ones.

The hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) objected to the mechanism available to parents, should they seek to trigger a ballot, to change a selective system in their local area to a non-selective one. There was only one part of his argument that I did not understand. If the presence of grammar schools benefits all children and parents in an area, as many of his hon. Friends say is the case, why is he concerned about parents of children in the feeder schools to grammar schools having a vote on keeping a selective system? After all, according to him and his hon. Friends, all those parents would benefit massively from the gravitational pull of a selective school in their area.

My concern is not about parents of children in feeder schools voting—they should be able to do so—but about parents of children in grammar schools not being able to vote and about the fact that ballots may be triggered by 10 anonymous people collecting a petition.

Leaving aside the trigger, which the hon. Gentleman raised with the Minister—I am sure that the Minister will respond to it—the logic of his argument suggests that he would want parents from all secondary schools in an area to be able to vote in a ballot, because they, too, would all benefit hugely, as described by his hon. Friends, from the presence of grammar schools that their children do not attend. By his own logic, all parents in an area should have a say in whether the local system should be selective or non-selective. However, the current system allows parents of children in feeder schools to vote in that way. If he is afraid that they will vote differently, clearly he is saying that they might not feel that their children are benefiting from having a selective school in their area. That was not the point that his hon. Friends were making.

The hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) mentioned the high schools in her area and spoke with passion and persuasiveness about the school system there. It was interesting to hear that non-grammar schools in the area are now referred to as high schools. Why do we never hear the term “secondary modern” any more? Why are non-grammar schools referred to as high schools, comprehensive schools, sometimes community schools or a variety of other appellations? It is for the reason pointed out by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood—the tripartite system that existed across the country condemned the vast majority of children to second-class schools. That is the truth and the reality of what the system was like.

The hon. Gentleman is nodding, because he taught in that system and knows what secondary modern schools were like, as a whole, across the country. They provided a second-class and extremely poor education to the children who failed their 11-plus and were unable to attend other schools.

I have no experience of grammar schools or secondary modern schools on the Isle of Wight, because that has not happened to the schools there. Both grammar and secondary modern schools are doing well in places such as Thanet, the rest of Kent and Rugby, where grammar schools remain. They are good schools; it does not matter what one calls them.

I am not disputing the fact that there are many good schools within a selective system that are not grammar schools. I completely accept the point made by hon. Members about good schools in their local areas; they will know far better than I the quality of education offered in those schools. I am simply pointing out that when the system was scaled up right across the country in the 1950s and 1960s, the reason why the comprehensive movement came along was because of the failure of that system to cater for the needs of the vast majority of children.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood brought to the debate the benefit of his experience as a teacher in a London comprehensive school, and he made some valid points about the kind of social selection that can also take place in a comprehensive school. I taught in a comprehensive school for 10 years, and in my experience in schools, what counts is not whether a school is selective, but the quality of its leadership, the teachers in the school and the relationship created with parents and the effective enforcement of good standards of behaviour in the classroom. Those are the sorts of issues that count in giving a good education to a child. That is perfectly possible—I witnessed it in many comprehensive schools. With the right leadership and the right quality of teaching, we can offer an educational experience for all children in a comprehensive school, including those who are academically gifted.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that, but I just wonder why his party still pursues the line of antagonising the remaining grammar schools and why it would prefer to see even them abolished at some point. On his party’s strictures, if the schools are good with good teachers and good results, should they not be allowed to continue?

I am not in the least antagonistic towards any school. As I have made clear, our policy is that the parents of children in the feeder schools to such schools should have the decision as to whether a system is selective or not. Let us be clear. When discussing grammar schools, it is not just a case of one school, but a selective system in an area. That is the consequence of having selection. It is quite right that parents should have a choice on that.

The hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) made the point that academic excellence is extremely important, and she referenced the very good schools in her area. I simply reiterate that academic excellence can be catered for in good, non-selective schools, whether they are academies, community schools or whatever.

On the point of social mobility and the make-up of existing grammar schools across the country, in a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) in April this year, which can be found in the Library debate pack for this debate that I am sure hon. Members have seen, the Minister set out the number of year 7 pupils attending state-funded secondary schools overall, the number of those pupils attending grammar schools and then the numbers of pupils from a black ethnicity, those who receive free school meals and those who have a statement of special educational needs. It must be said that the Minister’s statistics show that grammar schools are purely academically selective; they are clearly socially selective as well.

As I outlined in my contribution, different areas have different settlements when it comes to grammar schools and high schools, and that is important to understand. In an area with many grammar schools, there is a much greater cross-section of the population. When there are only three or four in a county, they are often in rural areas and people must drive to them. There is therefore a difference in the systems. We often put an umbrella around all grammar-school systems as if they were one, rather than look at the nuances that have developed in different areas with different outcomes.

In her speech, the hon. Lady made the point that the grammar school in her area with a free school-meal intake was at exactly the average for the area, but that is an exception. It has to be an exception, and the statistics show that. In 2010, for example, 96,680 year 7 pupils attending state-funded secondary schools received free school meals out of a total number of 549,725. Out of 22,070 grammar school pupils, 610 received free school meals. The table goes on to give a percentage, and I must say that, using my comprehensive school maths, I think that the figures are wrong in the Minister’s answer. I am sure that it was not his answer, but perhaps a mistake in translation when it went into the debate pack. The percentage calculations that I have done to check seem wrong, but what is clear from the figures when they are recalculated in a different way is that the ratio of state-school pupils to grammar-school pupils is about 25:1 and yet the ratio for free school meals is 158:1. There is clearly a huge amount of social selection going on, but I give those figures with the health warning that they may have been mistranslated along the way. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that—if not now, at a later date.

I will not go on much longer except to say that, as I stated earlier, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD statistician who compiles the figures for the programme for international student assessment, pointed out at a meeting that I attended that the best school systems in the world are non-selective. That is a clear conclusion of the OECD’s research.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this important debate, which has been interesting and well argued. As ex-grammar school pupils, we share a familiarity with the high standards and positive experience that grammar schools engender. I also know that he continues to serve as a governor at Dartford grammar school for girls to ensure that those standards and values continue. As the Sutton Trust recently reported, more than eight in 10 of girls at that school are accepted at university. At 83%, it is around the same percentage as Maidstone grammar school, which I attended for one year, where 87% are accepted. That record is testament to the work of the school, its staff and the girls themselves. More than nine in 10 pupils go to university from Dartford grammar school—the boys’ school.

This debate comes at a time of almost unprecedented reform in our education system, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the work of the Department since May 2010. For too long, standards were allowed to slip in far too many schools. I know that Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s new chief inspector at Ofsted, will bring a resolute determination to reverse that trend and to return the focus of all schools towards excellence rather than excuses.

Grammar schools ensure that thousands of state-educated pupils move on to higher education and to the most competitive universities. Around 1,050 grammar school pupils were studying at Oxford and Cambridge in 2009. Some 98% of pupils in grammar schools achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, compared with 57.8% of pupils nationally. In 2009-10, some 95% of grammar schools pupils who were eligible for free school meals achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with about 31% nationally. The gap between the overall figure of 98% and the free school meals figure of some 95% of those in grammar schools achieving those good GCSE grades, which is about three percentage points, is absolutely critical. That contrasts sharply with the national figure.

In 2009, 55% overall achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, but for pupils who were eligible for free school meals the overall figure was just 31%. That gap of 24 percentage points has stubbornly remained over recent years. That is a disparity in outcome that we want to close or, at the very least, bring closer to the narrower gap that grammar schools have achieved for the simple reason that reducing the attainment gap between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds is one of the key objectives of the coalition Government. The question is how we can achieve that objective. How do we spread to the whole state school sector the grammar school ethos of high standards and ambition and of placing no limit on achievement?

No limit on achievement certainly seems to be the approach taken by Dartford grammar school. It is one of three such schools where, in 2010, more than 95% of pupils achieved the English baccalaureate’s combination of GCSEs. A further nine grammar schools scored above 90%, and 67.9% of grammar pupils achieved the E-bac nationally, compared with the overall national figure of 15.2%.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) was right to pay tribute to Reading school, where 78% of the pupils achieved the E-bac, and to Kendrick school, where 72.8% achieved the E-bac.

At Chislehurst and Sidcup grammar school, only 15% of pupils achieved the E-bac. Does the Minister regard that as a failure?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are a variety of standards in the list of grammar schools, and I believe that we will see a rise in that figure that he just quoted in the years ahead, just as we will see a rise in the proportion of pupils taking the E-bac right across the state sector, as schools focus on achieving results in the E-bac.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East raised the issue of the grammar school ballot provisions, both in statute and in annex E to the funding agreement. We have discussed these issues on a number of occasions and the head teachers of the two schools that he mentioned—Reading school and Kendrick school—have made very clear representations. Throughout the country, there have been just 10 petitions since 1998 and only one went to a ballot. That proposal to abolish a grammar school, in Ripon, was defeated by a margin of two to one, but we are looking very seriously at the technical issues that my hon. Friend raised both today and in recent weeks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) paid tribute to Lancaster girls’ grammar school, where 87.3% of the pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs, and to Lancaster royal grammar school, where 81.9% of pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs. Those are excellent schools, and my hon. Friend is right that we should not be engaged in wars about such excellence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) was right to extol the virtues of Calday Grange grammar school, where 87.3% of pupils achieved the E-bac, and the two Wirral grammar schools, where 77.3% of pupils achieved the E-bac combination of GCSEs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) was right to pay tribute to Lawrence Sheriff school and Rugby high school. I listened very carefully to the important points that he made about the selection process, and local authorities should be advising parents about the options that are available to their children, particularly those who are from more disadvantaged backgrounds. I have also taken on board my hon. Friend’s important point about the environment in which the tests are taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) raised the issue of the ethos and popularity of grammar schools. It is that formula that the Government are now seeking to replicate in every school in the country and for every pupil, irrespective of family background. In this country, we have many exceptional schools and teachers who work extremely hard towards achieving those goals—in fact, we have some of the very best schools and teachers in the world—but we also know that many state schools are struggling to work in what is at times an almost unworkable system of bureaucracy and central control. As a result, we have fallen back in the programme for international student assessment rankings, from fourth to 16th in science, from seventh to 25th in literacy and from eighth to 28th in maths. Our 15-year-olds are two years behind their peers in Shanghai in maths and a full year behind teenagers in Korea and Finland in reading.

When the Minister cites those figures, will he cite the change in the number of countries participating in the PISA survey, will he say over what period he is quoting and will he also give the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study statistics for the same period?

Even if we take into account the increasing number of countries taking part in the PISA surveys, which took place in periodic years from 2000 onwards, the surveys still show this country declining. Also, the TIMSS survey is different, because it examines the curriculum of the countries in which children are tested, whereas the PISA survey looks at a common set of questions right across the different countries. The PISA survey is the one that we should be concerned about.

It is only fair to put on record that, as the Minister knows, Andreas Schleicher, who compiles the PISA statistics, does not agree that there has been any absolute decline in performance in this country.

However, Andreas Schleicher also says that there has been no increase in performance in this country, whereas other countries around the world are increasing performance. That is the problem facing our young people if we do not improve standards in our state schools, because those young people are now competing for jobs in a global market. It is no longer good enough just to look at the past, because we now have to compare our system with the best systems in the world.

Our education system has become one of the most stratified and unfair in the developed world. Since coming into office, we have been setting out our vision for reform on four broad themes: improving the quality of teaching and the respect for our work force in schools; greater autonomy for schools to plan and decide how and when improvements should take place; more intelligent and localised accountability; and reducing and simplifying the bureaucracy that frustrates and demoralises teachers. Those themes formed the basis of the White Paper that we published a year ago this month, “The Importance of Teaching”, and I believe that grammar schools can actively support improvement in each of those four areas.

First, we want to get the best graduates into teaching by funding the doubling of the Teach First programme during the course of this Parliament, and by expanding the Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders programmes, which provide superb professional development for the future leaders of some of our toughest and most challenging schools. We want grammar schools actively to share their experience of staff development with other schools, in both the initial training of staff and the provision of professional development. We have had more than 1,000 expressions of interest in establishing teaching schools and 300 applications have already been received, with grammar schools among the keenest to sponsor or support local schools to improve standards in their communities.

Secondly, our drive for greater autonomy has seen 111 of the 164 grammar schools that made those applications become academies, and many of them support other local schools. The vast majority of grammar schools participate in some form of partnership with other maintained schools or academies, be that an exchange of staff, working with students or supporting school leadership. Between them, the newly converted academies have agreed to support more than 700 other schools and to support fellow head teachers through the doubling of the national and local leaders of education programmes.

Thirdly, it is vital to ensure that improvement is driven not by the Government but by schools themselves, through effective accountability that focuses on raising standards. We are overhauling the inspections framework to focus on schools’ “core four” responsibilities—teaching, leadership, pupil attainment and pupil behaviour. The E-bac sets a high benchmark against which parents can hold schools to account, and it helps to narrow the gap between those from the poorest backgrounds and those from the wealthiest backgrounds.

The Russell group of universities has been unequivocal about the core GCSEs and A-levels that best equip students for the most competitive courses and the most competitive universities—English, maths, sciences, geography, history and modern or traditional languages. However, nine out of 10 pupils in state schools who are eligible for free school meals are not even entered for those E-bac subjects, and just 4% of those pupils achieve the E-bac. In 719 mainstream state schools, no pupils who are eligible for free school meals were entered for any single-award science GCSE; in 169 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for French; in 137 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for geography; and in 70 mainstream state schools, none of them were entered for history. Academic subjects should not be the preserve of the few, but we need to free schools to achieve that aim.

Fourthly, therefore, we are dramatically reducing the bureaucracy that constricts achievement. In opposition, we counted the number of pages of guidance sent to schools in one 12-month period. They came to an incredible 6,000 pages—or six volumes of “War and Peace”, if people are inclined to consider it that way— yet they contained little of substance that schools do not already know or share.

The most recent example of our efforts is the recently completed consultation on the school admissions and appeal codes. There were some 130 pages of densely worded text, with more than 650 mandatory requirements that were often repeated. The revised versions, which we published last Wednesday, total just over 60 pages and are minimal in their requirements, while preserving the important safeguards as well as introducing new requirements, such as priority in admissions for children adopted from care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) said in his contribution, it is one of the most far-reaching changes that we can make if we give all schools, including grammar schools, a greater say over their own published admission number.

Currently, that intake number is tightly managed by the local authority to ensure that any increases do not affect the school down the road. That kind of rationing of places only limits choice for parents and pushes cohort after cohort of children to less accomplished schools, rather than giving good schools the freedom to expand and share their excellence.

Our approach is simply to let schools decide how many students they can offer a high quality of education within their own capital budget, while ensuring that they maintain standards or improve any underperformance. Why is that important? Quite simply, it is important because we want the number of places in all good schools to increase, to increase genuine choice for parents. Even marginal increases in some areas will lead to a positive cycle of increased standards. Critics who argue that that will create sink schools overlook the current admissions codes—

Order. We must now move on to the next debate. Before doing so, I ask colleagues who are leaving Westminster Hall to do so quickly and quietly.