Lords quiz Blackstone on selective semantics;Education Bill

17th April 1998 at 01:00
It often happens that sequels don't live up to the originals. However, the House of Lords was warned that the Return of Roy would be bloodier than his debut on the red seats.

It was Lord Hattersley's first maiden speech for 34 years and the protocol in the peers' House is to be non-controversial and brief. He achieved the latter and almost the former as he spoke during the second reading of the School Standards and Framework Bill.

He said he applauded much of the legislation, but there were three questions he wanted to ask the minister, Baroness Blackstone, which he said were more to do with logic than ideology.

Referring to clause 97 which allows schools to select pupils by aptitude but not ability, he said: "Can my noble friend give us a definition of aptitude which is different from the definition of ability? She knows, because she is the great expert on these matters, that in practice whichever test is imposed produces virtually the same result. The same children go to a selective school whether they are chosen because of ability or aptitude."

He also asked whether it is possible for comprehensive schools to coexist in the same catchment area as a selective school. "It seems to be a matter of logic rather than ideology that if some schools are selective, by definition, those next door cannot be comprehensive," he said.

He also used his short speech to question the Government's nostrum that standards not structures are important. Logic told him the two cannot be separated.

It was a night for firsts. Lord (Ron) Dearing, formerly Mr Curriculum and author of the report of the National Committee of the Inquiry into Higher Education, also made his maiden Lords speech. "Mindful of the need to be non-controversial, I carefully scripted my speech only to realise to my horror that the subject I had chosen was leading to industrial action," he said.

He said he agreed with the need to keep class sizes for infants down, home-school agreements to make parents schools' partners and the broadening of opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds to take part of their education in further education colleges. But he ended with a slight sting, saying: "We have a history of being, understandably, in haste but getting it wrong. I believe spending a little time getting the procedures right will greatly benefit this well-intentioned Bill."

With the other peers less constrained, Lady Blackstone found her policies fell victim to rougher tongues, even from the Labour benches. Lord Peston said he was concerned that the word comprehensive does not appear any where in the Bill. He opposed selection by aptitude, saying selection was selection however it was disguised and that the ballots to end grammar schools were a bureaucratic nightmare. "It will be practically impossible for anyone to get a grammar school abolished I" he said.

Baroness Blatch, leading for the Conservatives, was characteristically robust: "People should be in no doubt about the Bill. It is the socialist's dream: egalitarianism and statism. It means that some of the most successful aspects of our education system must be sacrificed on the altar of socialist dogma."

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