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Schools: Grammar Schools

Volume 734: debated on Monday 16 January 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what will be the impact on local parental choice of allowing grammar schools to expand their pupil intake.

My Lords, through the revised schools admissions code we seek to give all schools, including grammar schools, greater flexibility in determining the number of places they wish to offer to their communities. This should help to ensure that parents are increasingly able to have the offer of a place at a good and popular school, whatever its type.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he confirm that it is now the Government’s policy that existing grammar schools can expand their size or create satellite schools in neighbouring areas? Is he concerned that well run state schools could be forced into a battle for survival as nearby grammar schools attempt to cherry-pick the best performing pupils? What advice would he give to parents of children who fail the 11-plus or would prefer their children to attend non-selective schools, and who are no longer able to object to grammar school expansion under the new schools admissions code?

My Lords, first, the Government have not changed the rules governing satellite sites and the possibility of that. They are the same rules that were in place under the previous Government and the admissions code does not affect them. With the admissions code generally, we are trying to get to a point where it is possible for all kinds of schools—where there is popular demand for them and where there are good and strong schools—to be able to grow in response to parental demand. We did not think that it was right to exclude from that greater freedom the small number of selective schools in the system.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that many of us who had the advantage of a grammar school education believe that the destruction of the grammar schools is to be deeply regretted? Therefore, will he accept that the policy that he has enunciated today will give modest encouragement to many people, and rightly so?

My Lords, I think, and hope, that the policy I have enunciated today is a consistent and pragmatic approach to how we can try to get more choice into the schools system for all kinds of schools. This change to the admissions code makes a modest contribution to that, but we think it is right that that should extend to grammar schools, as it does to all other types of school.

Will my noble friend join me in congratulating Bradford Girls’ Grammar School, which has decided to abandon selection, to become an academy and accept the statutory admissions code, and thereby to return to its roots—providing a good education to all girls locally?

I am very happy to join my noble friend in extending congratulations to that school and to all others. I am glad that they are able to take advantage of the freedoms that the Government have provided to choose academy status and to decide what they think is the best way forward. Clearly, we know that a large number of schools—I would point, obviously, to some academy schools—have done extremely well without selection. The Government’s priority is to make sure that children on free school meals are given a decent education and that we address the gap between rich and poor.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that able children should be able to go to academically good schools, whether they are grammar schools, academies or new independent schools, and that it is not only the right thing for them but in the national interest to make sure that the ability is coming up to run key aspects of the nation’s life?

I agree with my noble friend. The point of what we are trying to do is to make sure that there is a decent education system that can stretch and provide a good education for children of all abilities and aptitudes, including the bright and academically gifted. As it does, we are trying to increase the provision of university technical colleges and studio schools for children who are of a different bent.

Would not the Minister acknowledge that these really were the bad old days? A decision was made whether children, at the age of 11, should go into a form of education that would in most cases determine their life chances thereafter—their income, capacity to join professions and a range of other possibilities? The other not half but three-quarters of children, or in some cases even 90 per cent—the percentage varied almost randomly according to which local authority area you happened to live in—were told, at age 11, “This is how the rest of your life will operate. We’ve made a judgment. You’re not as able as the rest, and therefore your life chances will be diminished”. We do not want a return to those bad, bad old days.

My Lords, the point I was trying to make is that we want a system that provides opportunities for children irrespective of their background, gives them the chance to get on, whatever their age and stage, and gives them repeated chances to get on. To that extent I agree with the thrust of what the noble Lord said. For some that will be an academic route; for some it will be a technical route; for some it will be a vocational route. We want to move away from the idea of one size fitting all and have a more diverse system that responds to what children need.

Does the Minister accept that there are those who attended selective schools who did not find them helpful? I ask him to remember that when, at the age of 13, I was asked by my careers teacher in a girls’ grammar school about my ultimate aim in life and I said, “To become a Labour politician”, I was asked whether I was being deliberately insubordinate.

I am not sure that how the noble Baroness has turned out would have been affected by any educational system.