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Grammar Schools

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to give schools the right to apply to select pupils by ability, and to allow grammar schools to expand.

My Lords, this Government are dedicated to making Britain a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. Every child should have a good school place. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Education launched our consultation on how we bring greater choice and stronger capacity into the education system. Allowing both new selective schools and more expansion of existing selective schools in return for fairer access for low-income families is part of that consultation.

I thank the Minister for his comments and observations. Is the Minister aware that a large part of the business of this House is about the 20% to 30% of children who fail at school and fail their exams? Their concerns are always being kicked around in the House and being decided on—whether it is to do with law and order, prison, homelessness or the crisis of poverty. Is the Minister aware of the need to transfer some of the eggs from the grammar school basket to the children-in-need basket—the children who do not get a proper education and come out of school at the end of their time and you would never know that they have been to school?

First, I pay tribute to the great work that the noble Lord has done over many years with the Big Issue and in helping the homeless and many other people. I am very much aware of the points the noble Lord makes, having taken the Children and Families Bill, the Childcare Bill and now the Children and Social Work Bill through your Lordships’ House. We want our education system to deliver for everyone. We have been very much focused on more disadvantaged pupils, with our pupil premium and our sponsored academies programme. We are now seeing 350,000 more children in sponsored academies that are rated good or outstanding—schools which previously were generally performing very badly. Sponsored academies do particularly well for pupils on free school meals and at narrowing the gap. However, there is more to do, which is why we have launched our consultation.

My Lords, the Minister frequently—and movingly—talks about his own in involvement in education and the establishment of the Pimlico Academy. How would he feel if a grammar school was to park its tank on his community? Would that not be socially divisive and would it not have a major impact on the schooling of all children in the Pimlico area?

The noble Lord raises an extremely good question. We are surrounded in Pimlico by a lot of schools that, in one way or the other, partly because they are independent, are selective. But through our reforms, we are determined to see the selective sector—all selective schools, including existing ones—engage much more widely with the system, focusing particularly on lower-income households, so that we can help drive a school system that works for everyone.

Parents in this country are spending an estimated £4 billion to £7 billion a year on private tuition for their children. I declare my interest in respect of my employment at TES. What is the Minister’s estimate of how much that private tuition bill will go up for those anxious parents and of how many teachers will be displaced from the classroom in order to pursue that lucrative business opportunity?

I am fully aware that tutoring is a thriving business, and I know that many of these tutoring firms provide tutors pro bono to comprehensive schools—in fact, we have such a programme in my own schools. We are working with the Grammar School Heads Association to devise tests which are much more difficult to tutor for. As for the last question, I am not going to predict the answer to that.

My Lords, the word “ability” is used in the Question. Does that include, for example, manual dexterity and artistic skill?

Schools are allowed to select for a certain amount in some aptitudes, and of course early years do look at making sure that the motor skills of young children are developed, but I think the answer in this context is no.

Would the Minister accept that all serious education research—from Midwinter in Liverpool, to Head Start in America, to Sure Start—shows that detailed intervention with very young children is the best way of helping disadvantaged children? I accept the Government are doing more about childcare, but that does not solve the problem of disadvantaged children. When will the Minister accept that these children need detailed help from a very early age?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that early years is so important. That is why we have seen so many people who started life in the secondary sector moving into the primary sector, and many of them are now moving into the nursery sector. I am delighted that since we started allowing, as of this round, free school applications to include applications for nurseries, a third of applications have included them.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that it is at least as important for parents to be able to select the right school for their child as it is for schools to be able to select pupils?

I entirely agree. Part of the proposals set out in our consultation document are to enhance choice. They are permissive, to allow local communities, parents and school leaders—if they want to—to apply to open new schools.

My Lords, it is very clear that the Government want to provide the best education that they can to the majority of pupils. The idea that people should be able to enter selective education at 11, 14 and 16 is to be welcomed. However, in the very best academies, in which we have all been investing, that is exactly what is happening. People can be streamed across, depending on their particular skills: some are not particularly good at science but brilliant at the arts and English, and vice versa. I fail to understand the need for a sudden acceleration of grammar schools rather than an investment in that kind of excellent free school and academy.

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness about setting and streaming. I know the chief inspector is a great supporter of that. Within multi-academy trusts and groups of schools, that is so much more possible. It is important that we identify late developers. However, we believe that under our proposals, by putting more requirements on all selective schools, we can create a system that has a much wider benefit for all schools.