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Schools: Grammar Schools

Volume 693: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have any plans to increase the number of grammar schools in England.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that comprehensive reply. Does he agree that the purpose of any school is to improve achievement and to foster love of learning across a whole range of skills, attitudes and values? Can he say precisely what programmes and strategies are in place to encourage learning and improve achievement?

My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House is encouraging us to be increasingly brief, so I followed suit with my Answer. A whole range of programmes are in place to improve the quality of teaching and learning, but I would start with the teachers themselves. We will achieve nothing in education without good quality teachers. Over the past 10 years, we have significantly improved the average pay of teachers and head teachers. We have invested more in their training, establishing a National College for School Leadership. We have particularly concentrated on recruiting teachers in areas such as mathematics and the sciences, where we were previously under-recruiting and had severe shortage problems in the profession. We have piloted successful new routes into teaching, such as Teach First and the graduate teacher programme, which are encouraging graduates and mature switchers into teaching from backgrounds which previously did not go into it. I could answer on many other aspects of the education system, but the vital first priority is to get the quantity and quality of teachers we need in our schools. Once we get that right, all else will follow.

My Lords, the advantage of grammar schools is that they teach outstandingly well and teach each child to their ability. These are values and aspirations we should wish to see extended to all our children, yet decades of mixed-ability classes have failed a generation of young people. What measures will be taken to ensure proper academic selection within our schools, given that the Prime Minister now supports the Conservative policy of strong discipline and setting as a mechanism for raising standards?

My Lords, it is a great relief to know what Conservative education policy is. I am glad that the noble Baroness has helped us. I was only recently reading an excellent speech called “The Future of Conservative education policy”, delivered by the then Conservative education spokesperson a month ago—he has changed, since—which says that,

“the Conservative Party has had to change … We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids. This is a widespread belief but we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it”.

What an excellent description of the Labour Government’s policy, and I welcome the noble Baroness to our position.

My Lords, there is a great deal more setting in schools than there was 10 years ago, too. That is another policy being taken forward by this Government.

My Lords, has the Minister read the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation paper, Tackling Low Educational Achievement? It says that anything which gives schools greater opportunities to select their pupils works to the detriment of disadvantaged pupils, and that measures which assist fair selection will help them. What does the Minister intend to do to force grammar schools to select their students more fairly?

My Lords, the issue of the remaining grammar schools, of which there are a small number, is for local voters to decide under the arrangements we set in place in 1998. The noble Baroness is quite right to say that very few poorer children are able to gain access to grammar schools, and we look to them to see that they play fairly by the communities in their area. Non-grammar schools are bound by the admissions code under legislation which the House passed last year. All schools are bound to implement the admissions code, which is tougher than what went before. We believe it will ensure fair intakes in schools.

My Lords, has the Minister given attention or thought to the German system? Germany retained grammar schools and produced excellent alternatives to the extent that when East Germany joined the West, it abandoned its comprehensive system and adopted West Germany’s system, presumably because it worked better. He might also cast an eye over Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a point about the importance of good vocational education, which is an aspect for which the German system is renowned. We need better vocational education in this country and more effective work-related programmes in schools, but we do not believe that we need to separate 11 year-olds into sheep and goats in order to get those quality programmes in our schools. A programme of work-related diplomas is being introduced. It is starting next year with diplomas in construction, the built environment, engineering, health, society and development, IT and creative and media. These diplomas will be a significant addition to the quality of education offered in work-related areas and will make the vocational side of our educational system much more like the German system.

My Lords, would my noble friend embroider his foreshortened Answer to assure the people of Wirral, where we still have grammar school education, that they will not be thrown into educational turmoil by the advent of a Government from the opposite Benches?

My Lords, we have elections in this country and, alas, I do not determine their outcome. After the brilliant start being made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, the people of Wirral and elsewhere can rest assured that this Labour Government will stay in office for a good while longer.

My Lords, one of the issues that underlies the question of grammar schools is discipline in schools. Will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to improve the prospects for good discipline in all schools?

My Lords, having confident teachers who are properly supported by parents is an essential first step. As the noble Lord will know, last year the Education and Inspections Act for the first time introduced a statutory right for teachers to discipline pupils. It implemented a recommendation made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in a review committee that he chaired back in the 1980s, which had not happened. We have given a significant amount of guidance to schools to follow up the Elton report as it is implemented in schools. The support of parents is vital, and strengthening the relationship between schools and parents is crucial underpinning for discipline in our schools.