Skip to main content

Grammar Schools

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2016

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce legislation—including secondary legislation—to expand the existing offer of grammar schools to other local authority areas.

My Lords, the Government are committed to making sure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good or outstanding school that will allow them to go as far as their talents will take them. As such, we are looking at a range of options to deliver this. We are aware of media speculation on the future of education policy and grammar schools specifically. The Government expect to come forward with proposals in due course.

My Lords, that is a clear non-denial. Yesterday’s inadvertent leak—if indeed that is what it was—that the Government are seeking to create new grammar schools has caused widespread alarm. The Minister has not accepted that that is the case. However, something must be afoot. It is not normal for a Permanent Secretary to arrive at the door of No. 10 Downing Street for a Cabinet discussion on a controversial subject without that having been given some considerable consideration in advance. Will the Minister give an assurance that there will be no means, either legislative or non-legislative, to increase the number of grammar schools, so that we are not faced sometime in the not too distant future with further ruses such as the so-called annexe at Tonbridge?

To comment first on the noble Lord’s pun in his first statement, I can assure him that the leak did not originate from anybody in your Lordships’ House. I do not think I can add any further to what I have already said. However, we are not interested in any ruses and want the policy to be absolutely clear. The Prime Minister has made it quite clear that she wants a society that works for everyone and all children to have access to a good education. We are exploring our options for delivering this and we want all good schools to help us in this endeavour.

My Lords, as one who benefited from a grammar school education and who lives in a county, Lincolnshire, which has excellent grammar schools that do no damage to any children at all, I urge my noble friend to support our right honourable friend the Prime Minister if indeed she is inclined to increase the number of grammar schools in this country.

My job, of course, is to support the Prime Minister. I am fully aware that most grammar schools do an excellent job. However, this is a long-running argument and there are strong views on both sides. I assure the House that we will not do anything without detailed consideration and consultation.

My Lords, it is interesting to note that the Chief Inspector of Schools has said that the reintroduction of grammar schools would be disastrous and a retrograde step. Let us consider some facts. As the Minister knows, Kent retains the grammar school system. In Kent, the gap in attainment between free school meals pupils and non-free school meals pupils at key stage 4 is 34%. In inner London, where there are no grammar schools, the gap is only 14%. By those figures, grammar schools are socially divisive. Does the Minister agree?

The noble Lord referred to Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments. I am a great fan of Sir Michael Wilshaw and he has done an excellent job as chief inspector. He is right to pinpoint the great transformation in London schools, started under a Labour Government through their London Challenge and academies programme, which we have sought to continue. In fact there is no clear evidence to support his views but, as I have said, we are keeping an open mind. We are aware of the strength of grammar schools and would like more free school meals pupils going to them.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what representations his department has received for the return of secondary modern schools?

As I have said, this is a long-running debate. We have had plenty of representations for the return of grammar schools. However, as I have said, we will not make any decisions without deep consultation.

Does the Minister agree that grammar schools will benefit a minority of pupils? That is well recognised. They will not benefit the majority of pupils because, as I was, they are deprived of the opportunity to go to a grammar school.

I am fully aware that there is evidence to support the noble Lord’s case. There is also evidence to the contrary. We will look at this very carefully. Views are divided. It is obvious from today’s discussion that the issue is contentious. We are considering all our options and any decisions we make will be driven entirely by considerations of social mobility and that we have a schools system which works well for everyone.

Does the Minister agree that anyone who is concerned about the great lack of social mobility in recent years will be delighted at any possibility of the return of grammar schools? Their destruction was the major cause of the reduction in social mobility.

My Lords, like many in your Lordships’ House I went to a grammar school. My two sons went to local comprehensive schools. Does the Minister not accept that for every grammar school there are consequentially three secondary modern schools—in other words, that comprehensive schools become secondary modern schools—so that one child’s social mobility is bought at the expense of the destruction of opportunity for three other children?

We are keen that all our excellent schools, including grammar schools, help us to expand our school estates. We are committed to allowing all excellent schools to expand. There are many cases of grammar schools now sponsoring other schools. We are particularly interested in encouraging grammar schools to sponsor their feeder primary schools, as, for example, South-East Essex Academy Trust is doing with the Westcliff High School for Girls, an outstanding grammar school now sponsoring three primary schools, with one of which it has had the remarkable success of doubling its performance. In this way we hope that we can ensure that more pupils from less advantaged backgrounds will be able to achieve going to grammar schools.

My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that in the great Butler Education Act there was provision for a tripartite system—grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools? The failure of successive Governments has been to institute a suitable number of high-quality technical schools. That is one of the reasons why we have lagged behind our rivals in Germany in the provision of a skilled workforce for industry and commerce. Could we put that into the system as well, please?

My Lords, would the Minister agree that one of the most pernicious things about the way grammar schools work where they are still available is that the selection system allows an extraordinary industry in coaching and tutoring, which is available only to people who can afford to pay for it? Therefore, the social mobility that grammar schools allegedly provides is provided to a very small minority of people, not only in numbers of places but in types of people.

As always, the noble Baroness makes a very good point, relating to coaching for tests. We are working with the Grammar School Heads Association to see whether we can develop tests that are much less susceptible to coaching. Some 66 grammar schools now prioritise free school meals applications.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the question of excellence in schools runs the risk of being diverted into the question of whether we have grammar schools? That applies to both sides of the argument. The question of quality in schools is much wider and broader than that. In fact, the advantages given by being able to coach students to go to grammar schools are equally to be found in the leafy suburbs, where the better schools in the comprehensive system have a similar intake because the parents can afford to live there.

I entirely agree. We are driven by ensuring that as many schools as possible are excellent. Since 2010 we now have nearly 1.5 million more pupils being educated in good and outstanding schools under a tougher inspection framework under Sir Michael Wilshaw. I pay tribute to the help he has given us in driving higher standards in schools.