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Grammar Schools

Volume 774: debated on Thursday 8 September 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education to an Urgent Question in the other place earlier today about grammar schools. The Statement is as follows.

“As the Prime Minister has said, this Government are committed to building a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few, and we believe that every person should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, no matter what their background or where they are from. Education is at the heart of this ambition. We inherited a system from the last Labour Government, however, where far too many children left school without the qualifications or skills they needed to be successful in life. Our far-reaching reforms over the last six years have changed this: strengthening school leadership; improving standards of behaviour in our classrooms; ensuring children are taught to read more effectively; and improving maths teaching in primary schools. As a result, there are now 1.4 million more pupils in schools rated as good or outstanding than in 2010. This means more young people are being given the opportunity to access better teaching and to maximise their potential. This is what we want for all children and we are continuing our reforms so that every child can have the best possible start in life. It is why we are doubling free childcare to 30 hours for working parents of three and four year-olds.

As I said in July on the issue of academic selection, I am open-minded because we cannot rule out anything that could help us to grow opportunity for all and give more people the chance to do well in life. The landscape for schools has changed hugely in the last 10, 20, 30 years—we now have a whole variety of educational offers available. There will be no return to the simplistic, binary choice of the past where schools separate children into winners and losers, successes or failures. This Government want to focus on the future, to build on our success since 2010 and to create a truly 21st-century schools system. We want a system that can cater for the talents and abilities of every single child. To achieve that, we need a truly diverse range of schools and specialisms. We need more good schools in more areas of the country responding to the needs of every child, regardless of their background.

We are looking at a range of options and I expect any new proposals to focus on what we can do to help everyone to go as far as their own individual talents and capacity for hard work will take them. Education policy to that end will be set in due course”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement although it must be said that it was rather vague and unconvincing. Indeed, anyone listening to the Secretary of State this morning would have been struck by just how unconvinced she herself sounded when making it. The Minister will regard it as a backhanded compliment that his delivery was slightly better.

On the day that she assumed office, the Prime Minister announced that she would put social mobility at the heart of her agenda. That pledge was cast into doubt when she quickly abolished maintenance grants for students and any doubts were removed yesterday when she defended plans for new or expanded grammar schools. The Minister said that he was open-minded on the matter; the Prime Minister has already moved at least one step beyond that because whatever claims in support of grammar schools can be sustained, advancing social mobility is not one of them. I was surprised to hear the Minister tell your Lordships’ House yesterday that there is no clear evidence to support the views of the Chief Inspector of Schools, who said that the idea that poor children would benefit from the return of grammar schools was, “tosh and nonsense”. In fact, the Minister need look no further than Buckinghamshire or Kent to have Sir Michael Wilshaw’s opinion confirmed —an opinion, it might be said, that was supported yesterday by the Minister’s colleague and former Education Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts.

In answer to a question following her Statement today, the Secretary of State said that the Government’s plans will not involve a return to secondary moderns. Well, perhaps not in name, but as that suggests that a considerable amount of policy development must have taken place already, will the Minister explain how the Government believe that a return to the entrenched inequality and social disadvantage of the 1950s and 1960s can be avoided? We fully understand why some parents are attracted to grammar schools and accept they want only what is best for their children, but to expand grammar schools by a non-legislative route at a time when school budgets are squeezed and teaching posts remain unfilled shows a skewed sense of priorities. Therefore, can the Minister give an assurance that newly created academies or free schools will not be used as a backdoor method of reintroducing selection into state-funded schools?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his compliment. I will take any compliment I get from him, backhanded or not. As I said yesterday, I am a great fan of Sir Michael Wilshaw. He has played a big part in improving our school system and I am delighted that he is in the Chamber today. I am fully aware that there are arguments on both sides of this debate. However, we do not want this to be a dogmatic, ideological debate. Just because things may not have worked well in the past does not mean that we cannot find ways of making them work in the future for all pupils. We will make any changes against a background of ensuring that we improve the system for all pupils and against our drive for social mobility. However, we need more good and outstanding school places and we want all schools in the system that are good and outstanding to help us to do that. As I say, we have not made a policy announcement but I am sure there will be further Statements in due course.

My Lords, it has been reported that the Prime Minister wants a new generation of inclusive grammar schools and yet selection at age 11, which the grammar school implies, excludes those who fail the selection test. Many young people do not reach their full potential until they are in their teens. To write them off at the age of 11 would deny them the opportunity to succeed. Why do the Government not concentrate on the Liberal Democrat achievements in the coalition, not just free early years education but also the pupil premium for disadvantaged youngsters and free school meals—measures that will deliver a truly inclusive educational system?

I entirely agree that the coalition Government’s policy on pupil premium has been a clear success. We want an inclusive system. As I said yesterday, one of the ways that we think grammar schools can help improve their intake of pupils on free school meals, which I accept is very low, is by taking responsibility for some of their feeder primaries so they have a vested interest in them and can improve the performance of many more pupils on free school meals at an early age so that they can go to those schools. I take the point about the cut-off age of 11 and whether pupils cannot move at a later date. I assure the noble Lord that that is something we will consider and are looking at.

My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as a former chair of two academy schools—one of which involved seven pupil referral units—and as the mother of a daughter who is a teacher in an outstanding academy school in London. Can the Minister tell me whether any review will include an examination of the availability of pupil referral unit places in England? Many pupils are either excluded from school while awaiting a place, or remain in mainstream schools—at a disadvantage to themselves as individuals, while also often providing a challenge to the effective learning of other students in their classes. The most disadvantaged and needy should have equal rights to having their potential fulfilled. I firmly believe that, if we consider reintroducing selective schooling, we will need to look at both ends of the spectrum, because I am certain that grammar schools would not keep such pupils if they had problems.

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness about alternative provision and PRUs. We have in fact created many more alternative provision free schools. There are some excellent examples in London—for example the TBAP free school in Fulham—and we are looking more closely at this area to improve alternative provision. We are also keen to make sure that provision for pupils with SEN and behavioural difficulties in all schools and academies can be well accommodated.

My Lords, we have a policy which we fought extremely hard for—that every child has a right to an academic education. We need a very high proportion of our pupils to be academically excellent. How on earth does a grammar school policy fit with that?

We have had a very strong drive over the last six years of improving academic quality in the curriculum. I reminded the House recently that sadly, in 2010, only one in five pupils in state schools was studying a core suite of academic subjects—something that would be regarded as basic fare in most successful education jurisdictions and in any independent school. Through EBacc we doubled the number of pupils doing this. We are determined to see many more pupils doing the EBacc and doing a core suite of academic subjects. It gives disadvantaged pupils in particular the cultural capital they need, as they do not get that at home. We have been very focused on improving the academic achievement of all our pupils.

My Lords, however carefully the Statement is worded, will the Minister acknowledge that if you select young children at 11, there is no way of avoiding the fact that up to 80% of the children in the area will be labelled at that age as having failed. I know people who took the 11-plus 60 years ago who today, not far below the surface, feel bitter and hurt by what happened to them half a century previously. In one case three passed and one failed; you can imagine the effect of that in a family. How on earth can he introduce a policy of this sort that does not include those insuperable disadvantages?

We do not wish to go back to the past. We want a modern policy for the future. We shall be consulting widely on anything we come up with and we believe many of these issues may be overcomable and may result in an improvement across the board in our school standards.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that progress over the last few years in schools—and there has been significant progress—has owed nothing to the argument about whether we should have grammar schools? That is a political argument, which unfortunately some on each side would like to resurrect. The issue is excellence in schools. There is already selection; setting takes place in schools. There are schools already within the system which can select on the basis of special aptitude—for example the King’s College specialist school in mathematics, where there is no point attending unless you have particular ability in mathematics. Selection can take place, but there has to be a rationale for it that is not political.

The noble Lord, as always, makes a good point and he is, as we know, very experienced in this area. We want to harness the excellent ability of all schools to improve the performance of a school. He is quite right that there is selection in schools. Many schools are now setting; I know the chief inspector believes strongly in setting, and I have seen much evidence that parents support that kind of selection in schools.