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Secondary Education: Academic Ability

Volume 387: debated on Tuesday 15 November 1977

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2.44 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will include, in their consultations with local authorities, parents and teachers, the question of the retention of selection on grounds of academic ability as well as of proficiency in music and dancing as a means of regulating entry into secondary schools.

(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge)

No, my Lords. Her Majesty's Government remain committed to bringing about a fully and truly comprehensive system of secondary education that does not admit of any form of selection on grounds of academic ability.

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for his Answer to that Question, in contrast to the non-answer which he gave to me on 21st July? May I ask him whether he has read the excellent leading article in yesterday's Times on this subject? Would it not be in accordance with the spirit of tolerance and consensus which that article very properly advocates if the Government were prepared at least to discuss with local authorities what institutional arrangements need to be provided to secure that the academically more gifted child gets a suitable curriculum?

My Lords, I am always influenced by leaders in The Times. I have read the leader and I thought that, though interesting, it was insufficiently authoritative to change Government policy. It is now a year since we debated the Education Act 1976 at great length in this House. I know that the noble Lord opposite was not able to be present during debates on this subject. I am afraid that in the last, perhaps not fully developed, reply that I gave, the noble Lord may have had the impression that I thought he was in some way to blame for his absence. This is not the case at all. I know he had other obligations to fulfil. I was anxious to avoid going through the whole subject again. I do not think that the Opposition's view has changed, and the Government's view has not changed. I do not think it would be helpful to go through the arguments again. We recognise that the content as well as the structure of education is changing and the great debate that we have had this year bears witness to our preparedness to engage in critical self-examination before setting down new objectives and ways of meeting them. We have not changed our mind on non-selection in secondary education.

My Lords, I much appreciate the personal part of that answer. May I ask whether a refusal even to discuss variations and diversified methods with the local education authorities concerned argues a degree of intolerance which will bode very ill for the permanence of any policy that the Government introduce in this matter?

My Lords, I cannot for one moment accept that my Secretary of State refuses to discuss these things with the local education authorities. She spends practically her whole time discussing these matters.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is no reason whatsoever why a child with great academic ability should not receive the education that he or she requires in a comprehensive school? Is he further aware that to introduce selection of any kind whatsoever would bring to an end the whole comprehensive system of education in this country? That would be as unwelcome to some Conservative local education authorities as it is to all Labour ones.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her contribution. This is our approach; but I have to confess that the Secretary of State is aware that the highly gifted may present a problem. Her mind has never been closed on this matter. It is being discussed widely and changes of one kind or another may come. They will not be of the kind that has been suggested, which would, in our opinion, wreck the comprehensive principle to which we remain committed.

My Lords, will the noble Lord remind the House why it is correct and possible to have selection on academic standards at 17 or 18 years of age, and totally wrong to have it at 11 or 12 years of age? Can he summarise the reasons why the present Government have adhered to that viewpoint?

My Lords, I shall have to trust my memory because it is a long time since we discussed this in great detail in this House. Approximately, our view is that, after a certain stage, differentiation between one person and another does not handicap the person who takes the lower academic course because there are other approaches which are open to him which are generally thought to be equally important. For example, if there are two young men of 17, one of whom is academically inclined and the other not, the chances are that the one who is not academically inclined would prefer to go into business, whereas the one who is academically inclined would prefer to continue studying. I do not think the problem is very difficult; it is easy to understand. I think that, if the noble Lord casts his mind back to the extensive discussions which have taken place, at many of which he has been present, he will remember the arguments.

My Lords, is the Minister really implying that people of a very high level of ability would not wish to go into business?—because if so, that is a very good explanation of what is wrong with the country.

Several noble Lords: Hear, hear!

My Lords, I would think that the noble Baroness's question is really somewhat off the point. What I said was that somebody who is academically able would wish to continue academic studies. That says absolutely nothing as to whether in due course he might wish to go into business.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of his answers are of the kind which are giving great disquiet to some of the ablest of academic England? Secondly, is he aware that we are particularly worried about the inconsistencies of these answers? You cannot say that you have no selection if you make particular provisions for music and dancing. If music and dancing, why not maths?

My Lords, the answer to the first part of the noble Lord's question is, No. The answer to the second part is that there is great controversy as to whether mathematical ability can be detected at an early age.

Several noble Lords: Oh!

Yes, my Lords; there are a number of people who think it can and a number who think it cannot. There is no dispute as to whether dancing and musical ability can be detected earlier, and that is the entire explanation of the question.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the House as a whole, I think, would welcome the concern of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State over raising the standard of secondary education?—because that is infinitely more important than the detail of selection at 11. Is my noble friend aware, therefore, that we should be very grateful if he would reaffirm the Secretary of State's concern on this question?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I have already strongly reaffirmed the concern that is felt and I am happy to do so again.

My Lords, could the Minister tell us when we shall accept the fact of observation that men are born unequal, and that the purpose of education is to promote inequality to provide every single individual with the opportunity of developing every inequality of which he is capable? Is my noble friend aware that this idea that you can exclude ability from selection is a doctrinaire absurdity which really ought to go back to the Middle Ages?

Several noble Lords: Hear, hear!

My Lords, my noble friend is not always a help in these discussions.

My Lords, I have to confess that I am entirely with him in my desire to promote the inequalities which exist, and the method we propose to use is by trying to increase equality of opportunity.

My Lords, will the Government consider very carefully what has been said by my noble friend, and also by the noble Lord, Lord Snow? Are the Government wise to be so rigid and doctrinaire? Is the noble Lord aware that even the Soviet Union has special schools for gifted pupils, for example, in mathematics, with the result that they consistently lead, or at least are among the leaders, in the mathematics Olympiads for schools?

My Lords, they are also very successful at chess, but I do not know whether that has anything to do with it. I do not accept that my Secretary of State's approach, or the Department's approach, is inflexible. It seems to me to be extremely flexible within certain limits, and the limits are that we have 80 per cent. of our children being, on the whole, successfully educated in a system—

A noble Lord: Nonsense!

and we do not propose to go back on that, whatever the arguments which may be used.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that all his questioners are in the category of "highly gifted" and that none of them agree? Is that the result of academic ability? Will my noble friend sometimes consult with me, someone who has no academic ability at all, in order to get a common-sense answer?

My Lords, I take note of my noble friend's advice, and I shall take it.

My Lords, I think we should proceed with the next business. We have had a good run.