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Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 17:58 GMT
Blunkett committed to grammar ballots
Ripon Grammar School pupils
Parents voted to retain selection in Ripon
The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has insisted the government is committed to allowing parents to decide the fate of England's grammar schools.

He was called to the Commons to explain his policy on selective education, after the House of Lords backed proposals stopping further ballots on the future of grammar schools.

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.

Baroness Blatch
Baroness Blatch tabled the amendment in the Lords
On Wednesday, her counterpart in the Commons, Theresa May, tabled a question through the Speaker asking Mr 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.

Responding to the emergency question, Mr Blunkett said ministers "fully respect" the Ripon result, but it was "extraordinary" to argue that after one ballot no others should be held.

The issue was from a "bygone era" and the government wanted to focus on the needs of all children in lifting standards and achievement, he said.

He reiterated his party's intention to reverse in the Commons the Lords' rejection of ballots.

'Not in favour of 11-plus'

He said: "We have said on a number of occasions that we've no intention of changing the status of grammar schools unless parents wish it - I'm happy to repeat that commitment today."

The policy was included in Labour's 1997 General Election manifesto but dated back to a 1995 policy statement.

"In that agreed policy statement we were very clear indeed that we were not in favour of the 11-plus, but we were not in favour of, in any way, tackling grammar schools without the issue of parents being involved.

Theresa May
Theresa May: "Remove the death threat from grammar schools"
"That was agreed by both Houses of Parliament and was affirmed in the Schools Standards and Framework Act in 1998.

"Baroness Blackstone, the Minister for Education and Employment, in the Lords last night repeated that position and indicated that the Commons would seek to reverse the House of Lords amendment.

"I indicate today and repeat that commitment that we will seek to overturn that amendment when the Learning and Skills Bill comes before the Commons."

Theresa May referred to Mr Blunkett's weekend comments that he was "not hunting grammar schools", saying: "Those words will now ring hollow with teachers and parents of children in grammar schools when they now hear your intention to put their schools under threat once again.

"Contrary to those statements you have now confirmed to the House that you are against the 11-plus.

"Many activists campaigning against grammar schools will see that as a sign egging them on to continue their vendetta.

"If you are really interested in raising standards why don't you remove the legislative death threat from the grammar schools and let them get on with the job of delivering excellence in education?"

After Friday's two-to-one victory in Ripon for supporters of selection, Mr Blunkett had 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.

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

'Watch my lips' was 'parody'

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."

Following the Ripon result, Mr Blunkett was reported to have said that his "watch my lips" comments had been a joke.

But speaking in the Commons on Wednesday, Mr Blunkett said: "Of course 'watch my lips' was a parody.

"The difference is that after the achievements in primary school even an 11-year-old will know the difference between a parody and a joke about a speech.

"A parody is a parody on someone else's words on which that conference laughed.

"A selection policy that was laid out in the manifesto, which was in the document that was voted on that day, was far from a joke."

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See also:

11 Mar 00 | Education
Grammar debate is a 'past agenda'
11 Mar 00 | Education
Anti-grammar campaigners fight on
10 Mar 00 | Education
Parents vote to keep grammar school
09 Mar 00 | Education
Grammar ballot divides parents
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