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Grammar schools

Thursday, November 24, 2016 22:26
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John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): There is a happy consensus well hidden in this debate. All parties in the House believe that education is of huge importance, and we all want the best possible education for every child in our country. We also accept that the state has the main obligation, because most children will need state finance and state support to secure that great education.

I pay tribute to Ministers for the fact that 1.4 million children are now being educated in good and outstanding schools. There is proof that work by successive Ministers, and, more important, by an army of heads and other teachers in state schools, is delivering better education throughout the country. However, there is still much more to do, and I hope that all the Labour Members who are so critical of current educational achievement in their own areas will work positively with their schools and local education authorities to try to achieve that better performance.

I was pleased to hear the shadow Secretary of State say that she wanted to look at the evidence, but she rather spoilt that by revealing that, although she has made grammar schools her “big thing” and tabled this motion, she has not actually visited any grammar schools since taking on the job. I think that it would have been a courtesy to the grammar schools that she is attacking to visit one or two of them before mounting her challenge today.

The Opposition’s argument is that selection is wrong because we may not select all the talented people at the age of choice, and that it is therefore unfair to give the advantage to those who are selected. Again, however, there is huge humbug on the Opposition Benches. When I asked the shadow Secretary of State whether she was upset by the fact that our elite sportspeople are usually selected at quite a young age for special training and special education, and that they are expected to achieve to a much higher level than the average and are given training and made to do extra work in order to do so, she did not seem to be at all upset.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): That is a completely useless analogy. Education is about life. It is about the skills that people need to get through life—the basic literacy and numeracy. Sport is not about the entirety of life. That is why education is different, and that is why it is wrong for any child to be labelled second class at the age of 11.

John Redwood: The right hon. Gentleman simply does not understand. If a young person from a poor background becomes a top footballer, that is a transformational event in their life, and good luck to them. Why do the Opposition not understand that exactly the same arguments apply to art, ballet and music? We take the children who we think are going to be the most talented musicians, at quite a young age, and we give them elite special training so that they can play to the highest standards in the world.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned football. The fact is that 13% of our national football team went to private schools, which is twice the national percentage of children who go to private schools. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that might account for the performance of our national football team, and that we might be missing out on the talent that exists in the comprehensive sector? Does he not recognise that that is precisely the problem that we are discussing today? We are missing out on talent as a result of too narrow a focus.

John Redwood: I do not think that we will get a better team by training them less, and no longer giving them any kind of elite education. I think that Opposition Members are being very obtuse.

Let me try a different argument. The Opposition’s second argument against grammar schools is that in Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, where we have some good grammar schools, all the other schools must be suffering. Opposition Members write off and write down the many excellent comprehensive schools in areas that have access to grammar school places, in a quite unrealistic and unpleasant way.

I know my own area better than Buckinghamshire. We do not have any grammar schools in my constituency, but there are two excellent grammar schools just over the border in Reading, a girls’ school and a boys’ school, which take some of our brightest and academically most gifted pupils from the Wokingham area. Our comprehensive schools in Wokingham also contain great, academically gifted children. Those children, at the top of those schools, do not have to compete with the children at the grammar, and they go on to compete very successfully and get good places at elite universities. Opposition Members should not write off those schools, or pretend that they are some kind of failed secondary modern.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) reminded us that there are some very good secondary modern schools whose pupils achieve great things. My hon. Friend himself achieved great things before coming to the House, and some will consider it a great achievement that he is in the House now. I think that that shows that no one should write off any whole category of school. As an Opposition Member pointed out in a more honest moment, what really matters in a school is the talent of the teaching force and the good will and working spirit of the pupils. The two play off each other. That can be found in a good comprehensive, and it can be found in a good grammar school.

The Opposition must understand that we are not trying to create a series of schools for failures. We want to have great schools for everyone. We believe that selecting some pupils on the basis of academic ability and giving them elite academic training can make sense for them, but it does not write off the other schools.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I am not at all opposed to giving the brightest pupils an elite education. That is not why I am worried about grammar schools. I am worried about grammar schools because they do not solve the central problems that our education system faces. Michael Wilshaw has said that we have “a mediocre education system”. When it comes to the vast majority of pupils, we are falling behind out international competitors. In a modern economy in which the innovation sector is creating jobs at 30 times the rate of the rest of the economy, we need to exploit the talents of all our young people. That is why I am worried about grammar schools.

John Redwood: I opened my speech with exactly that comment. I think that that is common ground. However, selecting some people who are good at football or good at academic subjects does not prevent us from providing a good education for everyone else. If we want to have more Nobel prize winners in the future, we should bear in mind that they are likely to be attending the great universities in our country. Do we not want to feed those great universities with the best possible talent from our schooling system, and should not those talented people have been given an education that stretches them and takes them further along the road to great work before they reach the universities? The most successful people at university have often had an extremely good education beforehand. They are self-starters, and understand the importance of that.

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John Redwood: I do not have time, and many other Members wish to speak.

We need to get the maximum number of talented pupils through at the highest possible level, so that they can achieve even greater things at the elite universities.

That brings me to my next problem with the Opposition’s arguments: they completely ignore the fee-paying schools. Some fee-paying schools in our country achieve enormous success academically. They have a double privilege, because they select bright pupils who also have rich family backgrounds. When the two are put together, the combination is explosively successful.

I do not begrudge people a great education if they come from a rich background. I did not come from a rich background myself, but I am grateful for the fact that those people can have a great education, and it is even better that they pay for it themselves as well as paying their taxes. I am not jealous. It must be a great problem to be against all kinds of elite education when we have those great schools with their double advantage. However, a grammar school gives people who are bright but did not come from a rich background an opportunity to compete better against the phenomenally successful elite schools in the public sector. As was rightly pointed out by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), some of our public schools dominate not only academically, but in the sporting world and in other worlds as well, which shows that their combination of resource and selection is very powerful. Surely we need more centres of excellence to which people can gain access without having rich parents.

I find it deeply disappointing that Opposition Front Benchers, having called a debate on this important subject, cannot confirm or deny that they wish to abolish the grammar schools that we have. I have one little tip for the Opposition. I was in opposition for all too many years, and I remember how difficult it was, but, as a shadow spokesman, I always found it helpful to work out my party’s position before challenging the Government on theirs. I needed to make sure that my party’s position on the topic for which I was responsible was sensible and also likely to be popular. I think that the Opposition have failed both tests today. It sounds as if the shadow Secretary of State wants to abolish the grammar schools, but does not have the courage to say so.

Let me issue a plea to the House. I ask Members to get behind the excellent grammar schools that we have, and to get behind the excellent comprehensives that we have. I ask them to understand that where comprehensives and grammars coexist, the comprehensives can do very well, and can achieve great things with their pupils. We do not have enough great schools, so let us not cripple those that we have. I certainly do not want to live in a world in which one has to be rich to go to an elite academy.

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