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Schools: Satellite Sites

Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent the expansion of grammar schools on to satellite sites.

The legislation governing the establishment or expansion of grammar schools has not changed. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 and the Academies Act 2010 effectively mean that there can be no new grammar schools and we have not proposed any changes to that legislation. Any school can seek to expand by opening another site, as has been the case since 1944, but to do so it must be a continuance of the original school.

I thank my noble friend for restating government policy. However, I do not see how that stacks up with the potential for doubling the number of school places for which selection operates in certain areas. As we know, under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, no new grammar schools can open, so can my noble friend tell me the criterion for a new school and why the planned satellite grammar school in Sevenoaks can claim not to be a new school but part of Tonbridge Grammar School many miles away? If the new school is given the go-ahead, what will that do to the catchment area of the original school? Could we see a school stretching right across the county as it extends its catchment area by opening a whole chain of satellite schools?

As I said, my Lords, the fundamental position on opening a satellite school has not changed. There is a process in place if people want to come forward with a proposal to open or expand a satellite school, they can apply to the local authority, and to the Secretary of State in the case of an academy. Those proposals would be looked at on a case-by-case basis. The bar on new provision is absolute and clear, and it is not the case that the Government are seeking to shift that position either by the front or the back door.

My Lords, in the circumstances described by the noble Baroness, it would appear that simply by calling a new school in essence a satellite extension, from what the noble Lord has said, it looks like it might be permitted. Is it not a fact that the Government’s policies are leading to much more selective education? How will we ensure fair admissions to our schools?

My Lords, it is absolutely not the case that this Government’s policies are leading to more selection. It is not happening everywhere. There was a big increase in the number of selective places between 1997 and 2011 when the number went up by 35,000 within the existing framework. Wherever it would have been possible for the Government to have sought to increase selection—for example, through new free schools or through the academy conversion programme—we have been absolutely clear in the Academies Act that we have taken the opposite view and have not permitted or encouraged the expansion of selection within the maintained system. We have said—this is the point about the admissions code—that all schools, whether maintained, non-selective or selective, should have the ability, in response to parental demand, to increase their published admissions number. That is the only change that has been made.

Does the Minister agree that there is increased selection? It has happened under all Governments for at least a quarter of a century. It is now selection on the basis of money—whether you can afford a house in a certain area with a good school, or whether you can afford to send your kids to a public school. Governments of all parties have pursued a policy of selection by money, as opposed to what it should be—selection on ability.

My Lords, I hope that I have already made clear the Government’s views on selection by ability. The noble Lord is right that one of our big challenges is to make sure that we do not continue to have the consequences that he outlined. That is one reason for our drive and focus on raising standards in the maintained sector. We will try to make sure that more good places are offered to children where money is not an issue.

One reason why we removed the limit on the ability of a good and popular school to expand was to make it possible for more children to go to the school. One reason that we want free schools is to increase choice in the system. Many of those schools are being set up in areas of the greatest deprivation. I agree with the noble Lord that overall we should make sure that, rather than talking about selection for a small number of people—which is a historic argument that we have had in this country for a very long time—our emphasis should be on trying to raise standards for the greatest number of children, of all abilities, and on doing what we can to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Will the Minister tell me what consultation takes place in a community to advise on the nature of a school in that area?

The statutory processes around selective schools that we discussed have not changed at all. Proposals are put forward, and there are consultations, representations and so on. That has not changed.

Does my noble friend agree that many of us in this House would not be here today had we not gone to a grammar school? What exactly is wrong with grammar schools?

It is nice to hear the contrary view put by my noble friend. Clearly, for the people who benefited, a grammar school education acted as an extremely powerful rocket booster for their opportunities in life. However, there were large numbers of children for whom that was not the case. The Government are trying to focus on raising standards for all children, recognising that children of differing abilities need a good education—whether it is a core academic education or a core technical and vocational education—and that we need a range of schools that will meet those needs.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the point put so succinctly by the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham—I never expected to be saying this—is very widely shared in this House?

The point put so succinctly by the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham, is shared very widely in this House. Is the Minister aware of that?

My Lords, I am now more aware than I was a moment ago. My answer is the same. I recognise that there is that perception—and that in some cases it is more than a perception, it is true. However, that is something that all of us want to get away from.