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Schools: Admissions

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 June 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will allow independent schools, particularly those which were formerly direct-grant grammar schools, to join the state sector on the basis of needs-blind admission.

My Lords, the Government already allow high performing independent schools to join the state sector by submitting successful applications to become free schools. Free schools are independent state-funded schools that do not charge fees, must abide by the schools admissions code and are not able to have selective admissions criteria. It would therefore be open to the kind of schools to which my noble friend refers to apply to join the state sector.

My Lords, I am sad that my noble friend does not share my disappointment that, after so many decades of pontificating and after my right honourable friend Michael Gove’s speech on the need to rebalance the independent and state sectors, no party seems prepared to engage with an initiative from a trusted intermediary such as the Sutton Trust to take advantage of all the work done under the previous Government to improve the state system and relationships between the state and the independent sector and make a radical change to the balance between state and independent education. Can he offer no hope to the Sutton Trust in its ambition to make a change which will otherwise take 50 years on the best possible course?

My Lords, I am extremely keen, as are the Government, to encourage as much co-operation as possible between the independent sector and the maintained sector. The noble Lord will know better than me the number of examples of independent schools working with the maintained sector in a variety of different ways—whether through involvement in the academies programme, coming into the maintained sector or providing courses for children at local maintained schools, all of which I thoroughly applaud. However, the main priority of the Government is to do what we can to raise the standards for the vast majority of children in maintained schools. That is the focus of the work we are doing.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the speech referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas? Are the Government backing the speech by Mr Michael Gove pointing out that apartheid in the British education system is causing great damage to our society and that the Government must do something about it?

I am sorry, my Lords, I thought I had said that in overcoming that divide the Government are extremely keen, as is the Secretary of State, to pursue the goal of bringing the two sectors together in as many ways as we can. As I said, some of that is through sponsorship of academies. The free schools programme, to which I just referred, will welcome high quality independent schools into the maintained sector, providing a good quality of education free for children from all backgrounds. It follows from some of the initiatives that the previous Government took to bring some of those schools into the academy sector.

Will my noble friend reaffirm the Government’s clear statement that they do not want an expansion of selection among schools maintained by the state? In that connection, will he consider clarifying the law on expansion of existing grammar schools and, if necessary, change it if it is not meeting that objective?

Yes, my Lords, the Government’s position on selection is clear and we have no plans to change it. The existing legislation that governs the prohibition on the introduction of new selective schools remains in place. The only change that the Government have made since we came in is the ability of schools of all types to expand their number locally in response to parental demand, if they are popular schools, because we are keen to give parents more ability to get their children into local popular schools.

My Lords, will the Minister congratulate the growing number of independent schools which have joined the state system in recent years as academies by giving up both fees and selection? In particular, will he commend Belvedere School in Liverpool, William Hulme’s Grammer School in Manchester, Bristol Cathedral Choir School and Colston’s Girls’ School in Bristol, which are doing a fantastic job as state academies and are open to their population as never before by becoming academies, giving up fees and giving up the 11-plus?

I know that this subject is very dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and I am extremely aware of all the work that he has done for many years to pursue that goal. Those schools are making a fantastic contribution. I was looking at their results the other day. Since they have come into the maintained sector, without selective admissions, they continue to perform an extremely good job. A number of schools across the country demonstrate that it is possible to achieve outstanding results if they have high aspiration, high ambition, an orderly environment and work hard for all of their children to do well.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that some years ago, when I was its general secretary, the Independent Schools Council put forward for discussion an ambitious set of proposals to provide open access to schools of all types in the independent sector? Under these proposals, government expenditure per pupil would be no higher than in mainstream, maintained schools. Pupils of a wide range of ability and aptitude would benefit, with families on low incomes being offered free places. Will the Government now give consideration to some such arrangement?

My Lords, I said in my reply to my noble friend Lord Lucas that the focus of what the Government are doing is to attempt to raise the standards in the bulk of the maintained sector, so that more schools are able to achieve for their pupils the results that the most outstanding schools in the maintained sector are already delivering. That is our focus and some of these other ideas, interesting though they are, are not where our priorities lie.