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Session 1997-98
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Standing Committee Debates
School Standard and Framework Bill

School Standard and Framework Bill

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 24 February 1998

(Morning)

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

School Standards and Framework Bill

10.30 am

The Chairman: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Hon. Members may remove their jackets if they so wish. As the chapter of the Bill that the Committee is about to debate is of considerable interest to all members of the Committee, I propose to allow a reasonable degree of licence in the discussion on clause 90, but that may be reflected in my clause stand part decision. It is not an invitation to hon. Members to make overlong, repetitive or out-or-order speeches.

Clause 90

General restriction on selection by ability or aptitude

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 66, line 40, leave out from "ability" to "any" in line 43.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 33, in clause 91, page 67, line 25, leave out "by ability or".

No. 34 in clause 91, page 67, line 27, after "continue", insert

    "until the appropriate local education authority has, within three years of the coming into force this Act, and after consultation with relevant persons and bodies, determined the future or otherwise of such a school,".

No. 35, in clause 96, page 70, line 18, after "arrangements", insert

    "unless the appropriate local education authority has, within three years of the coming into force of this Act, and after consultation with relevant persons and bodies, determined this issue.".

Mr. Foster: I shall spend the majority of my speech on amendments Nos. 32 and 33. I am sure that the Committee understands the intention behind the amendments, in that they are designed to bring about the end of partial selection based on ability. Some members of the Committee may wonder why they do not refer to the ending of selection by aptitude, but subsequent amendments will provide an opportunity for us to discuss that. The Committee was delighted to hear previously from the Minister that he intends to give us a clear explanation of the distinction between aptitude and ability. We are looking forward to hearing it.

It is likely that the amendments will be strongly resisted by both the Government and the official Opposition. Although I fundamentally disagree with the official Opposition, they have long argued the importance of selection in schools and have a track record of developing it, so it will come as no surprise when they resist our proposals. The amendments may also be opposed by the Labour party not only those on the Government Front Bench, but those on the Back Benches. When in opposition, the Government spoke out frequently and strenuously against selection in schools, as I shall demonstrate, so the real surprise is the attitude of the Labour party and the Government.

In some parts of the country, as a result of the previous Government's policy, children are facing more ability tests to gain places in local schools of their choice. At chapter 7, paragraph 33, the White Paper states:

    "The use of partial selection, though limited, has led to controversy and caused parents concern in areas such as Bromley and Hertfordshire".

The White Paper was right to draw attention to the concerns of those who live in areas where there has been partial selection. Despite the general restriction against selection imposed by clause 90, the Committee will note that clause 91 will give statutory force to existing partial selection on aptitude and ability. However, should complaints be made, the adjudicator may decide to end partial selection.

The Committee knows only too well that selection does not give choice to most parents; it gives choice to only the few children who pass a selection test. Generally speaking, it is the school that selects the pupil, not the parent who selects the school. One effect of partial selection, which was introduced by the previous Government, is that when one school starts to select, its neighbours feel obliged to follow suit. That domino effect has resulted in some children having to go from one school to another, taking test after test.

I shall illustrate the problem. Parents in Wandsworth receive a document entitled "Choose a Wandsworth School". The borough of Wandsworth has 10 secondary schools two are Roman Catholic, which select by interview; another two select 50 per cent. of pupils on general ability; one selects 25 per cent. of pupils on general ability; another selects 50 per cent. of pupils on subject specialisms; one school is a city technology college, which selects 100 per cent. of its pupils; and the remaining three schools have a banding system, taking 20 per cent. of pupils from each of the five bands.

Each of the secular schools has an entrance test, and all those tests are different. All the tests take place under examination conditions and last for three hours. In the schools that select 50 per cent. of pupils, siblings account for the entire remaining intake. No places exist at those schools based on proximity. Many local children who fail the test or who have no older siblings are not within the catchment area of any other school and must therefore travel five or six miles to school Wandsworth is a large borough.

One Wandsworth parent wrote to me recently, stating:

    "My daughter's junior school shares a campus with Graveney School, which selects 50 per cent. on general ability. This year, 17 pupils from that school took the test for Graveney School, and 6 got places. There are certainly 4 children living within 200 metres of the gates of Graveney School who have no place. 7 children have no offer of a place anywhere at the moment.

    The situation in the junior schools is invidious. After the test results are revealed, some of the children feel humiliated; some refuse to attend school and face their friends; they lose self-confidence and self-esteem. In the terms prior to the tests perhaps a third of the year 6 pupils have private tuition; the classes are divided between oldest or only children who are full of uncertainty, and younger siblings of secondary pupils who have confidence in their future education. [Mr. Foster]

    Many of these children are 10 years of age when they take up to 7 different entrance tests. Those who do not attain a place are given a very clear message that they are failures. The system produces pressure on such young children that can only be described as abusive."

Another parent from Wandsworth also wrote to me. The letter states:

    "The last few months has been hell for everyone and continues to be so for some. My own son has got a place but I have seen him lose confidence and self-esteem in the process. His teacher reports that the whole of year 6 is very difficult because of the stress the children are under. The least able are given a very clear message that they are failures.

    Partial selection has produced in Wandsworth a system that is abusive to children, a bureaucratic nightmare and which does nothing to raise standards for anyone but the ablest 10 per cent."

That is the system that the Bill will enable to continue. Frankly, that is appalling.

The Committee will be well aware that it was the Education Act 1988 that introduced grant-maintained schools and gave the main impetus to the extension of selection. When the Act was going through the House, the Conservative Government said that the new grant-maintained schools would not be allowed to change status for five years. As we all know, that promise was quickly abandoned.

More recently, a June 1993 circular signalled the beginning of the introduction of wider partial selection. Paragraph 47 of circular 6/93 states that the

    "Secretary of State believes that the introduction of a limited amount of selection in a secondary school involving the selection of a total of about 10 per cent. of pupils on the basis of ability or aptitude in one or more of music, art, drama and sport, will not in general lead to a significant change in character of the school as a whole."

We saw the beginning of partial selection not by legislation, but by that circular, which said that from then on, a change to selection of 10 per cent. in those areas would not be considered a significant change in the character of the school, so it could proceed on that basis.

Three years later, in June 1996 in circular 6/96, that ability to select was extended. Selection of up to 15 per cent. in any subject or combination of subjects, or by general ability, is now likely to be possible without the need to publish statutory proposals. Therefore it was through regulation, not primary legislation I stress that because it is important that more and more partial selection was introduced.

What was the Labour party's view of all of that? The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), the Government Whip, is always delighted to be quoted in Committee. As he so rarely contributes to our debates, it is useful occasionally to put his words on the record. On 27 January last year, he said:

    "Real choice comes when parents can choose a good comprehensive on its merits from among several in the vicinity. That is real choice: not taking an examination and failing."

If the hon. Gentleman is now going to oppose the amendments, he has obviously changed his mind about that.

The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), spoke eloquently about the issue of selection and partial selection in particular in the same debate. She said:

    "The arguments against selection are well known and well made: it weakens parental choice and preference; it institutionalises low expectations of children; and it labels too many of our young children as failures."

She went on:

    "One of the problems we encountered in Committee was that the Government failed to understand that, if one school decides to select, that decision affects other schools. The legislation not only gives individual schools the right to select, but creates troublesome consequences for all the other schools in the area."

She made that point even clearer later, when she said:

    "If schools select 20 per cent. of their intake through academic selection, the same number of children may be refused the right to attend their local school." [Official Report, 27 January 1997; Vol. 289, c. 92-97.]

If the Under-Secretary opposes the amendments, she will be going back on her clear opposition to partial selection when she spoke just over a year ago.

10.45 am

Just a week before the general election, the Prime Minister said:

    "Mr. Major calls it a policy of selection. I call it a policy of rejection. Selection for the few, rejection for the many."

Several organisations involved in education feel strongly about this issue. Perhaps the most important organisation that we should take into account is the Local Government Association, which is concerned about the possibility that partial selection might remain and states that it is "to be regretted."

What are the Secretary of State's views? I have gone back over many years and read many Labour party manifestos. Until the most recent manifesto, Labour consistently made it clear that it is totally opposed to selection of any type [Interruption.] The Minister is clearly anxious that I use more up-to-date quotes from the Secretary of State.

 
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Prepared 24 February 1998