Questions to the Prime Minister
I am sure that the whole House will join me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and Jane Kennedy, the police and crime commissioner for Merseyside, in paying tribute to the police constable who was stabbed several times yesterday in the line of duty while trying to arrest a rape suspect in Huyton. We all wish him well and a speedy recovery. I also wish the former Prime Minister well on his departure from this House and in his future life. I hope that the by-election in Witney will concentrate on the issues of education and on his views on selection in education.
I want to congratulate the Prime Minister. She has brought about unity between Ofsted and the teaching unions. She has united former Education Secretaries on both sides of the House. She has truly brought about a new era of unity in education thinking. I wonder if it is possible for her this morning, within the quiet confines of this House, to name any educational experts who back her proposals on new grammar schools and more selection.
The Prime Minister
First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the police constable who was stabbed in Knowsley? One of the events that I used to look forward to going to every year as Home Secretary was the Police Bravery Awards, because at that event we saw police officers who never knew, when they started their shift, what was going to happen to them. They run towards danger when other people would run away from it, and we owe them a great tribute and our gratitude.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of education, because it enables me to point out that over the past six years, we have seen 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools. That is because of the changes that this Government introduced: free schools and academies, head teachers being put in charge of schools, and more choice for parents. I note that the right hon. Gentleman has opposed all those changes. What I want to see is more good school places and a diversity of provision of education in this country so that we really see opportunity for all and young people going as far as their talents will take them.
I asked the Prime Minister whether she could name any experts who could help her with this policy. Sadly, she was not able to, so may I quote one expert at her? His name is John and he is a teacher. He wrote to me:
“The education system and teachers have made great strides forward to improve the quality and delivery of the curriculum. Why not fund all schools properly and let us do our job.”
The evidence of the effects of selection is this: in Kent, which has a grammar school system, 27% of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs compared with 45% in London. We are all for spreading good practice, but why does the Prime Minister want to expand a system that can only let children down?
The Prime Minister
The right hon. Gentleman needs to stop casting his mind back to the 1950s. We will ensure that we are able to provide good school places for the 1.25 million children in schools that are failing or inadequate or that need improvement. Those children and their parents know that they are not getting the education that is right for them and the opportunities that they need.
Let us consider the impact of grammar schools. If we look at the attainment of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children, we see that the attainment gap in grammar schools is virtually zero, which it is not in other schools. It is an opportunity for young people to go where their talents will take them. The right hon. Gentleman believes in equality of outcome; I believe in equality of opportunity. He believes in levelling down; we believe in levelling up.
Equality of opportunity is not segregating children at the age of 11. Let me quote the Institute for Fiscal Studies:
“those in selective areas who don’t get into grammar schools do worse than they would in a comprehensive system.”
The Secretary of State for Education suggested on Monday that new grammar schools may be required to set up feeder primary schools in poorer areas. Will the children in those feeder primaries get automatic places at grammar school or will they be subject to selection?
The Prime Minister
We are setting up a more diverse education system that provides more opportunities. The right hon. Gentleman appears to be defending the situation we have at the moment, where there is selection in our school system, but it is selection by house price. We want to ensure that children have the ability to go where their talents take them. I gently remind the right hon. Gentleman that he went to a grammar school and I went to a grammar school, and it is what got us to where we are today—but my side might be rather happier about that than his.
The two things that the Prime Minister and I have in common are that we can both remember the 1950s and can both remember going to a grammar school. My point is this: every child should have the best possible education. We do not need to and never should divide children at the age of 11—a life-changing division where the majority end up losing out.
I notice that the Prime Minister did not answer my question about feeder primary schools. The Secretary of State for Education said on Monday that the Government
“have not engaged much in the reform of grammars”
but that they would now start the process. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether existing grammars, such as those in Kent and Buckinghamshire, will now be instructed to widen their admissions policies?
The Prime Minister
The right hon. Gentleman is right that what we are looking at and consulting on is a diversity of provision in education. We want to make sure that all grammar schools actually do the job that we believe is important—providing opportunities for a wide range of pupils—and there are many examples across the country of different ways in which that is done through selective education. He talks about a good education for every child, and that is exactly what our policy is about. There are 1.25 million children today who are in schools that are not good or outstanding. There are parents today who fear that their children are not getting the good education that enables them to get on in life. I believe in the education that is right for every child. It is the Labour party that has stifled opportunity and stifled ambition in this country. Members of the Labour party will take the advantages of a good education for themselves and pull up the ladder behind them for other people.
I am sorry that the Prime Minister was unable to help anyone in Kent or Buckinghamshire in the answer to my question—presumably, she will have to return to it. This is not about pulling up ladders; it is about providing a ladder for every child. Let me quote to her what a critic of grammar schools said:
“There is a kind of hopelessness about the demand to ‘bring back’ grammars, an assumption that this country will only ever be able to offer a decent education to a select few.”
He goes on to say:
“I want the Conservative Party to rise above that attitude”.
Those are not my words, but those of the former right hon. Member for Witney. Is he not correct that what we need is investment in all of our schools and a good school for every child, not this selection at the age of 11?
The Prime Minister
What we need is a good school for every child, and that is precisely what we will be delivering with the policy that we have announced. With that policy, we will see: universities expanding their support for schools; more faith schools being set up; and independent schools increasing their support for schools in the state sector. A diversity of provision of education is what we need to ensure good school places for every child. That good school place is important so that young people can take opportunities and get into the workplace.
I notice that this is the right hon. Gentleman’s fifth question and he has not yet welcomed the employment figures today, which show more people in work than ever before; and wages rising above inflation. That is more people with a pay packet and more money in those pay packets. What would Labour offer? It would offer more taxation and misery for working families. It is only the Conservative party that knows you can only build an economy that works for everyone when everyone has an opportunity for work.
Of course I welcome anyone who has managed to get a job; I welcome those people who have managed to get jobs, and keep themselves and their families together. The problem is that there are now almost a million of them on zero-hours contracts who do not know what they are going to be paid from one week to the other.
In order to help the Prime Minister with the expertise on the reform of secondary schools, may I quote to her what Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, has said? He said quite simply this:
“The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as quite palpable tosh and nonsense”.
Is not all this proof that the Conservative party’s Green Paper addresses none of the actual crises facing our schools system: a real-terms cut in the schools budget; half a million pupils in supersize schools; a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention; a rising number of unqualified teachers in classrooms; and vital teaching assistants losing their jobs? Is this not the case of a Government heading backwards, to a failed segregation for the few and second-class schooling for the many? Can we not do better than this?
The Prime Minister
The right hon. Gentleman has got some of his facts wrong—plain and simple. We have more teachers in our schools today than in 2010. We have more teachers joining the profession than leaving it. We have fewer pupils in supersize classes than there have been previously. I simply say this to him: he has opposed every measure that we have introduced to improve the quality of education in this country. He has opposed measures that increase parental choice, measures that increase the freedom of head teachers to run their schools, and the opportunity for people to set up free schools. Those are all changes that are leading to improvements in our education system, and we will build on them with our new policies.
I recognise that this may very well be the last time that the right hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to face me across the Dispatch Box—certainly if his MPs have anything to do with it. I accept that he and I do not agree on everything—well, we probably do not agree on anything—but I must say that he has made his mark. Let us think of some of the things he has introduced. He wants coal mines without mining them, submarines without sailing them, and he wants to be Labour leader without leading them. One thing we know is that whoever is Labour leader after the leadership election, it will be the country that loses.