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Friday, 14 February, 2003, 10:22 GMT
Blunkett called to account on selective schools
Ripon Grammar School pupils
Ripon Grammar School will continue to select its pupils
The education secretary has been called to the Commons to explain his policy on selective education.

The development comes after the House of Lords backed proposals stopping further ballots on the future of grammar schools in England.

The Tory education spokeswoman in the Lords, Baroness Blatch, tabled an amendment on Tuesday night to the government's Learning and Skills Bill, which was backed by 166 votes to 161.

Her counterpart in the Commons, Theresa May, has now tabled a question through the Speaker asking David Blunkett to explain his policy on selective education in light of the government defeat in the Lords.

Last week, parents at Ripon, North Yorkshire, voted to keep their grammar school in a ballot forced by anti-selection campaigners.

'Debilitating process'

During the Lords debate, Lady Blatch said that when the government had introduced the system of balloting for signatures to determine the fate of grammar schools "it was obvious that a relentless and pernicious war of attrition, would be unleashed on these schools".

Baroness Blatch
Baroness Blatch: "This can go on ad infinitum"
Baroness Blatch described referendums, and the threat of them, as unsettling for pupils, parents and staff.

"This power set out in the School Standards Framework Act of 1998, allows those who are opposed to grammar schools to return in four years time to canvass signatures yet again in order to trigger a ballot," said Baroness Blatch.

"This can go on ad infinitum. For the schools, the staff, the parents, but more significantly the children, this is the most unsettling, disruptive and debilitating process.

"Time, energy and money is expended fending off those who have a political grudge and philosophical objection to grammar schools."

But after the vote Education Minister Baroness Blackstone said the government would seek to reverse the decision in the Commons.

The government wanted to raise standards for all children not just a "tiny minority" in the remaining 160 grammar schools, she said.

'Listen to the Lords'

"The amendment is simply an attempt by the opposition to reintroduce the "grammar school in every town" policy which they themselves failed to implement during their 18 years in office."

But Baroness Blatch called on the government to listen to the Lords.

After the vote, she said in a statement: "If the government try to reverse this vote in the Commons, the only conclusion will be that they do want "war" on grammar schools."

She added: "I appeal to the government to listen to the good sense of the House of Lords.

"A readiness to listen that would reflect credit on them. Grammar schools do no harm. They do a very very great deal of good. They should remain secure beacons within our education system.

"David Blunkett after his confusing statements should make clear at once what the government position now is."

Following the two-to-one victory in Ripon for supporters of selection, Mr Blunkett said it was time to bury the old debate about grammar schools and focus on standards.

His comments angered those deeply opposed to schools which select their children on the basis of ability.

'Watch my lips'

Mr Blunkett has also come under attack for apparently going back on a pledge he made in a 1995 party conference speech to end selection.

He told the party faithful - and a nationwide audience of voters: "Watch my lips, no selection, either by examination or interview, under a Labour government."

During the debate, Liberal Democrat Lord Tope said: "Many of us did watch those lips and I have not the slightest doubt what the intention was at that time.

"It was to give the impression that, should a Labour government be elected, we would see the end to selection."

The BBC's Norman Smith
"The issue is becoming a political embarrassment"
The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"The government has pledged to overturn this amendment"
See also:

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